Once and future technology
“If the ultimate authority in the world is human feeling, but somebody has discovered how to hack and manipulate human feelings, then the whole system collapses.”
—Yuval Noah Harari speaking recently on the podcast Your Undivided Attention
My spouse and I skinned up the local ski mountain on a recent early morning (those tiny tinges of pink on the clouds are all we got of the sunrise). If I happen to still be on my way up when the chairlift opens and my father happens to be skiing that day, he’ll stop on his way down and ask me how I’m enjoying suffering. Skinning up a mountain does feel idiotic sometimes but it also feels awfully good.
On the way up I listened to a recent episode of the Futures podcast with computational biologist Andrew Steele on aging and longevity. (I don’t usually listen to anything while out in the woods, but the chairlift started turning early and I’d generally rather listen to something that makes me think than the squeaking of the empty lift a couple hours before it’s even open to ride.)
I’m not really a futurist and probably don’t think about this stuff more than the average person, but there’s two reasons I listen to more episodes of Futures and Your Undivided Attention than I do of other podcasts. The main one for Futures is that every time I do, the interview turns out to be far more thought-provoking than its description implies. The conversations are far-ranging, and the interviewer Luke Robert Mason almost always asks the questions that rattle around in my head as I’m listening. For example—when discussing how humans might soon live to 200 years, I thought of recent discussions about the problems with gerontocracy in the U.S. Senate. (Not that there is anything wrong with people of any competent age wielding power, but most of us see the power imbalances inherent in the Senate and U.S. politics in general. This is a good article on the current drawbacks.) Next thing I knew, Mason was asking about power imbalances in scientific research or university departments that might develop with a healthier elderly population that lives longer.
The other reason is one that I brought up toward the end of my book, which is that when we don’t pay attention to the future implications of current technologies, they can end up having a disastrous effects on our lives. Since my book is about walking and a good chunk of it deals with the loss of walking, my main focus was the national highway infrastructure. There was tremendous resistance in the 1920s and ’30s against car dominance on streets that used to belong to everyone, but over the decades we’ve allowed that history to be rewritten by car manufacturers while approving highway plans that destroy communities and human health at the same time.
How technology shapes our lives matters. I think we all know this. But we don’t always envision what the shape of its effects will be in 100 years or so. There’s a phrase, “legacy infrastructure,” in computing, architecture, urban planning, and street design that describes baked-in infrastructure that can be extremely difficult to reverse-engineer to be more human-centered. Redesigning a four-lane, 45 mph road to include bike lanes and sidewalks, for example, can be both difficult and expensive. But there’s no choice. If you want a walkable world you have to work with legacies of the decades when pedestrians weren’t considered in road design.
We deal with visible and invisible legacies all the time, from lack of crosswalks or sidewalks to laws that encourage destructive profit-seeking over, say, a right to clean water (approving oil pipelines from a legal perspective is a legacy of values, just as lead pipes are a physical legacy); from private and shared traumas to tooth decay guaranteed by a childhood of too much sugar.
When it comes to technologies, the more potential they have to affect life on this planet, the closer attention we should pay to the consequences, good or bad. Corporations are just fictions we’ve collectively (kind of) agreed on, but what they build or destroy is very real.
To keep this attentiveness in balance with paying attention to the world around me, the physical world, this breathtaking planet, is always a challenge. But it’s mornings like that one recently, as my spouse pushed his skins up ahead of me until he was out of sight, and the overcast sky offered a muted sunrise, that remind me why it matters.
I guess I’ll keep suffering up that mountain as long as my knees let me. The sunrises are worth it, even when they’re barely visible.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
A thoughtful, well-written article on the evolution of the idea of “redpilling” from The Matrix’s original creation to radicalizing people—usually young men—into extremist ideologies: “How did the red pill go from being a critical component of a film created by two trans women to being a popular term used by men’s rights activists (MRAs) and white supremacists?”
The Yield, by Tara June Winch, is a novel of love and dispossession placed in a rural part of Australia. I had some trouble engaging with it, which I’m sure had to do with my mood but wasn’t helped by the fact that one of the three interwoven plot lines was a long letter written by a white colonizer about 100 years before the story takes place and I’ve never enjoyed historical fiction very much (with the exceptions of Kate Atkinson and Louise Erdrich). Not the fault of the author, and the chapters containing the main character’s grandfather’s dictionary listings for his native Wiradjuri language (Winch is Wiradjuri, though in the book the language and clan have a fictional name) made the book worth it on its own. A reminder that every word is ripe with story.
If you have any interest in fire ecology, this episode of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers podcast with research ecologist Paul Hessburg is sobering but fascinating. Sobering: the mildest years of Western wildfires are already behind us, even counting California’s recent megafires. Fascinating: everything about fire, forest ecology, and what modern foresters and fire ecologists are learning by (finally) looking back at how people managed these forests before European invasion and colonization.
An interview with astronaut Kathy Sullivan on the Futures podcast about her new book. It was something different to listen to, which was nice for me, but it’s also worth scrolling through to about 7-8 minutes before the end (around one hour in), where she talks about not being a fan of the Lifeboat theory for space—colonizing space as a response to climate change and environmental devastation. It’s a form, she says, “of the ultimate gated community”: “It becomes close to being an amoral proposition to me. . . . No one who talks about that means all of humanity. They mean some small segment of people—chosen by whom? on what grounds? . . . And the rest of you lot we’re just going to leave behind on the trash pile we’ve created. So no.” I like her.
I somehow can’t stop watching this 15-minute video on Psyche that explores and evokes the attachment to movement and landscape experienced by the staff of the Trans-Siberian railway. I could totally see getting addicted to that job.
Gosh, a lot in your writings today (as usual). Skinning up a mountain at an area strikes me as a great way to listen to a podcast, very few distractions :-)! And of course great for the body too. So many disciplines are adding computational (photography is another one) as another type of study. You are so right about us not paying attention to future implications of our technology - I recall Bill Joy's seminal essay in Wired in 2000 about genetics, machines, nanotech and how the 'future doesn't need us' - he was quite accurate 20 years ago I think. If we knew/understood how these things might shape our lives, would we act differently? Dunno, that would require cooperation, and working together, not much of that happening today, in the meantime technology voraciously inexorably races ahead. I'm not too bullish on good things happening.
And thanks as always for continuing to add to my reading/listening stack :-), esp the podcast with Paul H sounds fascinating. Hopefully get to a few of the other suggestions as well.