“If a man builds a machine and that machine conspires with another machine built by another man, are those men conspiring?” ~ Ray McKinnon, The Accountant
Last week, I re-released the Scroll that once served as this site’s flagship post: The Evolution of the Cybernetic Werewolf. I had removed it from the blog at the beginning of this year when I decided to start completely from scratch, but I recently realized that without that essay, my werewolf motif might not make much sense to new readers. So I published it again with the caveat that it needed to be re-written because I no longer felt the same way about “augmented humanity.” But rewriting is hard, boring business. So I’m just writing a new Scroll to explain why I changed my mind.
But what exactly did I change my mind about? What does “augmented humanity” even mean?
Well, in blogging circles, the phrase is generally associated with Ev Bogue’s infamous cyborg phase and an e-book he released during that time titled Augmented Humanity. When I wrote the essay, I was specifically referencing the concept as I understood it in Ev’s book. But Ev was not the originator of the phrase; he was borrowing a term coined by ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
The general idea is that technology – specifically, the Internet and the devices we use to access it – is becoming so ubiquitous that it is part of us now, and not just part of us but perhaps the better part of us. If you Google the word “augmented”, you’ll receive the definition: Having been made greater in size or value. So a technologically-augmented human then is a human who has been made greater in size or value by the technology he utilizes.
There’s little doubt that being constantly connected has augmented our asses, but let’s talk about value. Does the technology we carry with us increase our value? Well, it certainly makes us more profitable targets for pickpockets and muggers. But for once in this culture, the value at stake is not monetary but personal. The idea behind “augmented humanity” seems to be that humans who are plugged in all the time are becoming more valuable than those who are not. Before you disagree with that assessment, consider how often you hear the word “evolution” slip into conversations about technology. There is no doubt at all that many people – powerful people – believe that ambient technology will usher in the next phase of human evolution, and indeed, are developing new technology with the explicit goal of hastening this process.
From this evolutionary stand point then, a human being with a smart phone is more valuable than one without because the plugged-in person has made the necessary adaptation to survive in the information economy. The person without a smart phone is obsolete. Rather like the Dodo bird.
And what does it mean to be obsolete? Well, just try to sell a first generation iPod or even an iPad for the price you paid for it. It can’t be done. These items have lost their value. Likewise, the people who aren’t using the latest, greatest tech product to hit the market lose their value because it has already become so connected to the machines we use. Hence, the pressure to buy a useless new iPad when your iPad 2 works just fine. You don’t want to look obsolete when the firing squad comes in to announce lay-offs, do you? So you shell out another couple hundred bucks for a slightly shiner version of something you already spent a couple hundred bucks on.
Now let’s step back a second and think about Eric Schmidt. Schmidt makes money when people buy new forms of technology. Schmidt tells people that his technology is making them better, more valuable humans. People want to be better, more valuable humans. They buy technology. And not just Schmidt’s, of course. He’s only the person who said it out loud. Every man or woman who stands to earn a fortune by convincing us to buy a slew of new gadgets every years believes the same thing. Or benefits by pretending to believe the same thing. They’re smart people. They probably know it’s bull shit. But bullshit is money in our world so they keep shoveling it out and raking it in.
So let’s be honest. An augmented human, a better human, a more valuable human – in the eyes of Schmidt and his cronies – is just someone who keeps buying their shit.
An augmented human isn’t a werewolf at all. An augmented human is the worst kind of zombie. An augmented human is someone who is so brainwashed by this culture and the CEOs who control it that they actually start to believe their gadgets affect their personal value. They believe they have made the adaptation necessary to gain admittance to the next phase of human evolution. And if you believe that you are part of the next phase of human evolution, then you believe – whether you know you believe this or not – that you are better, more valuable than anyone who has not.
And who hasn’t been augmented?
Well… I couldn’t find an exact number. But there are 884 million people who don’t have clean water to drink right now. So I’m guessing the number of un-augmented people isn’t less than 884 million.
So we’ve already got almost a billion obsolete people for sure.
Almost a billion people who do not have value.
Almost a billion people who will go extinct.
While I sit on my Ikea couch and type on my Toshiba laptop and sip from my Ozark bottle and try to write about getting in touch with our animal nature.
A year ago, I wrote that an augmented human was a human who had been set free. In doing so, I implied that technology was the savior we’ve been waiting for. In doing so, I was a racist. A classist. A sexist. A capitalist, imperialistic pig. A zombie of the highest order.
Why? Because when I used the word “us” in that context I was only talking about those of who us can afford a smart phone. Those of us who have computers. Those of us who have Internet access. Those of us who have bottled water. I was ignoring the existence of at least 884 million people who have none of these things and who are undoubtedly more in touch with their animal natures than I can ever be.
And then there is the dark truth that none of us augmented humans want to face. The truth about where our technology comes from. The truth about the working conditions. The truth about the wages. The truth about the effects on the environment, on the communities, on the local culture. The truth that these products we believe are saving us are enslaving others.
There is no distinction between humans who are augmented and humans who are not. There is only the line between those who have and those who have not. It is the same old line that’s always been there, ripping the world in two.
I don’t have any answers in this Scroll. Only the admission that I was wrong.
My favorite thing I’ve ever seen online is a cartoon following the death of Steve Jobs. It showed Mr. Jobs arriving at heaven’s gate. As a Buddhist, he was horrified and said he didn’t believe in that stuff, he believed in reincarnation. The final panel showed an unhappy Chinese boy putting together an iPad on an assembly line.
It doesn’t matter if technology can set a bunch of American, middle-class, white kids free from office drudgery if it means a thousand kids across the world will waste their lives in hellish factories building those products for us. And even if the conditions aren’t as bad as they’re rumored to be, they’re still factories. We aren’t even willing to work in cubicles; how do you think we’d handle an assembly line?
This is not evolution. This is entitlement.
I am guilty of it. But I am not going to throw out my phone or my laptop and don a sackcloth to make amends. That wouldn’t help a damn thing. My phone has been made. The least I can do now is honor the person who was paid pennies to make it by using it to speak out against the exploitative system.
This is not a pleasant Scroll, I know. It contains no easy to read lists or helpful productivity hacks. It doesn’t even offer any tangible solutions to the problems it brings up. I apologize for that, or for bringing you down. I have to write what’s on my mind, and this has been on my mind a lot lately. Thoughts?