A friend was concerned about the convergence of augmented reality, self-drive vehicles and 3D printing, not to mention free energy. Another wondered what everyone will do when machines do everything…
Energy is free, goods are free, food is free, transport is free. Nothing requires skills, just the pressing of buttons or not that, just the emergence of desires which are immediately satisfied. Food printers print from chemical cartridges the daily menu, or our taste buds are tickled with virtual foi gras while nourishment is injected by the Great Interconnector. No interaction is required between people. There is no economy. There is scarcely a concept of physical space. A small elite keeps The System going, for some old-fashioned reason – no economic interest, just habit or a relic of morality – checking that the Great Interconnector is ticking along. Mankind is in beauty sleep, a coma where all experience is in the mind. There might be still ageing and death so DNA is harvested from our blood by the Interconnector. There is no need for the messy jerking of semen into eggs, yet we sleep in a constant state of benign and gentle, sexual arousal. There is no human society. No civilisation. There are only ten billion people in paradise.
Today commerce and economic acts are part of the social fabric and contribute to building it. Local shops still exist. But shops are on their way out because of online purchasing, because we will make it at home from glob pumped in and because we won’t actually want the stuff. Why buy jeans if you can sit at home in a tracksuit and have all your needs fulfilled? The less you need to buy the less your personal social skills develop. Farmers and the self-sufficient are not known for gregariousness.
When we are all just plugged into a stream of synthetic experiences, when all the experiences our brain urges for will be provided automatically through digital-hormonal drips, we will no longer have social skills because we won’t need them.
There is no economy. Economy needs a balance of supply and demand. For an economy to exist it needs to be easier to get someone else to do something than to do it yourself. Now that everything is free, there is nothing that someone else can do better than you, so there is no economy. There are ten billion poor and a handful of rich. But as all experience is costless, being poor or rich has no meaning in terms of material things. There is only poverty and wealth in imagination and ideas. The poor are plugged in, the rich are unplugged. Since the poor have nothing to offer the rich, there is no meeting point of supply and demand curves. Thus the poor are kept alive by an old-fashioned sense of duty of the rich – all the poor can supply is genetic accident which might, one day, have some benefit. It would be easy for the few rich to switch off the Great Interconnector and let the poor die. But as it costs virtually nothing to maintain, there is no reason to lose the optionality that the poor provide. Some day they might be needed and it would be difficult to recreate them.
If technology just meant we don’t need to work, you might think that people will have more time for association and socialising. Social skills will thrive. We can join clubs and societies and feel a strong sense of belonging and purpose. Or we will do our own thing and so revel in autonomy.
With no need to work we can embark on amazing projects to restore nature, bring wilderness into cities. We can learn to garden and cook. We can learn musical instruments and play sports. Mastery will give us deep and real satisfaction.
But we don’t bother. Technology plugs right into our brains, shortcuts and obviates traditional, offline routes to pleasure, fulfilment and wellbeing. We opt for the virtual world with its convenience, immediate gratification, an unadulterated drip of concentrate.
Having a cerebral world distinct from the physical world is nothing new. To be a human animal on this planet is to suffer boredom, fear, pain and drudgery and therefore to seek escape in virtual worlds of fantasy, song, stories, paintings and spirituality. What is new is the threat that the virtual world will dominate to the point that society is impossibly degraded or stops existing. Hiding in the virtual world means we lose the ability to love, to negotiate, to make peace, to tolerate and threatens a more fractious, argumentative and violent world. Without peace-making at all levels, society falls apart. But if society is just a construct to enable individuals to prosper, and technology means that society is no longer needed for some form of prospering, then does it matter. Or do we want society for its own sake?
We have an idea of what it is to be a fulfilled human being. We value the idea of people being fulfilled, whole and balanced. This includes being a social person and nurturing social relationships and having social skills. For some reason we loathe the idea of people being reduced to cerebral attachments to the Matrix, even though putting the human race into that coma might be the only way to preserve life on a planet: the fulfilment of our desires and aspirations in the real world is killing the real world. Perhaps the problem of “how do 10 billion people live fulfilled real lives in harmony with the rest of the natural world” is a problem without a solution. Perhaps the solution is to synthesize everything in a virtual world. We would no longer trample down other species; the only movement of our legs would be occasional involuntary twitches as hormone levels are adjusted during the daily maintenance cycle (24MC). It will not be a sadder world: we can synthesize every form of emotion we experience in the real world, so there need be no shortage of perceived contentment, wellbeing, happiness, joy – there might even be controlled experiences of grief, forgetfulness or grumpiness. Yes, human wellbeing needs mastery, purpose, belonging and autonomy. It needs love and relationships and care and hope and trust and many other ingredients. All that can be faked in the virtual world.
This is ok until something goes wrong. The machine breaks and people tumble back into the real world and find themselves in a strange place. We are struck by a smell of rust and rotting, until now blocked by the odour-firewall implant (OFI). Somewhere dust prevails – everything has dried out – water is synthesised from hydrogen and oxygen by the Great Interconnector. Other places dank and mouldy: we never knew. As we feel our way through those wet corridors and emerge into the air, there is a roughness to experience, an unfamiliar sharpness: like something freshly squeezed and raw. Outside: Eden. What we recognise as gardens are delightfully overgrown, thickets, an impenetrable raucous of birds and insects now inheritors of the real world which we abandoned. Perhaps we don’t know fear and let a spider run across our hands. Others crunch barefoot into snow, trip, cold sears their bare skin: cold, icy cold, for the first time ever. She gasps with exhilaration, her entire body in almost orgasmic thrill – and there is a primal urge to express something, to share, to shout it out, to utter something – and a synaptic signal tries to activate the tongue – but she can make only a pained, spastic grunt: language is dead.
One view: it is a desirable outcome, and the only way to save life on the planet: put man into that coma. If you take that view, then do nothing. It is happening, and hopefully it will happen quickly enough.
Another view: it must be avoided at all costs because it means the end of humanity. It means the end of homo sapiens (good news for elephants!). To save homo sapiens we have to fight the system as we do in the case of all other problems. The system is moving where we don’t want it to. We have learnt from other social battles what to do: resistance, campaigning, counter-cultural enterprise, lobbying and so forth. It is a well-known list.
Interestingly, what we need to do to avoid that Orwellian-Matrixian world is the same as what we need to do to tackle climate change: raise our children to love nature. Get them outside, splatter them in mud, drop them into puddles, throw them into streams, heave them up into boughs, let them graze their knees on the bark, hide behind bushes to watch badgers, smell cow shit, eat blackberries, stalk pigeons, roll down hills, wonder about the moon, shake them out of their sleep to watch the sunrise, sit still while a blackbird sings, hurl pebbles at old people, scare sheep, clamber over walls, replace the stones they knocked off, snap sticks, feed ants, see the sun through crimson eyelids, catch shrimps, boil them, understand their pain, hug puppies, walk in long, wet grass in the morning.
 Note that free energy is no boon, despite the rejoicings of techno-optimists. It just means that, freed from one constraint, our species will continue its rampage until it hurtles into another constraint.