Visionary industrialist and omni-genius Elon Musk recently let forth his belief that all of us are all living within a constructed and programmed universe, powered by computers and guided by some form of intelligence. It’s a startling claim, even from one who seems to have a propensity to startle, but it’s also a remarkably familiar theory about the place of humanity in the universe. Allowing for obvious distinctions, 16th Century Calvinists had a similar view of the human condition, and it’s a beguiling argument now for anyone who wonders about the sources of knowledge, or who is challenged by all the vital and trivial information that connects us to each other, or stressed by the changes we sense happening to us and to the world around us
How could anyone not wonder about all this? Understanding and managing the universe we inhabit is the mission of humanity, and as a species we have made extraordinary progress in that effort. If we never seem to satisfy the initial curiosity it’s perhaps because each of us has a different starting point. I know where my understanding of the universe started, but lately I’ve begun to think we have altered it in some fundamental way.
We moved to new offices a few months ago and among of the improvements offered in our new ‘space’ are several large flat-screen monitors. Being somewhat recusant about new technology and the gadgets that go with it, these are not especially impressive to me but I am reminded by colleagues that we are professional communicators, and the screens allow us to conduct videoconferences, or to watch different informational or instructional programs. All true. Usually, though, the screens are showing a Web-only channel now offered by a traditional network news division. What’s on view doesn’t seem to be news as much as a looping review of political and financial commentary, dishing over and over again something some candidate or office holder has said or done in the past 12 hours. In form and content, it’s gossip, though I cannot state this categorically because the displays here usually are muted (we’re working, after all.)
The human and financial resources leveraged over decades to achieve all this are impressive by any standard, and I accept the practical value of such a connection, but I wonder why people seem to want that linkage available all the time. The office TV (sorry, that’s what it is) is not the only example; people keep smartphones and tablet devices in position so they can be informed at a glance, checking in to what they’ve missed. Others move about with the Bluetooth clipped in place for some immediate update, or they keep an IM or mail window open in the background, ready to receive. Similar arrangements are seen in homes, stores, on the street, in cars and planes, everywhere. Always.
Let me make clear that I am not discounting the value of data networks or intelligent systems, and I know that life as we know it now depends on machinery and information technology. At the risk of contradicting Musk though, I am reaffirming the central role of humanity in this universe: we built this complex of devices and systems, we filled it with information, and we can manage it if we accept the responsibility, even though we seem to be losing enthusiasm for that role.
True, the system is vast, and it grows ever more complex. What it reveals about our circumstances is often unwelcome or disturbing. Of course, it’s preferable to keep some distance, and let the system do whatever it’s designed to do. We select a channel, lower the volume, and check in occasionally to see what’s happening. At that moment, it doesn’t seem to matter if there is some artificial intelligence controlling the universe.
“Customization” — currently a craze in manufacturing as it has been in tech and consumer products for decades — allows us to simplify ideas and messages so that the universe will then seem to meet each of us on our individual terms. Then, there is no pressure to acknowledge facts or conditions we don’t find welcome, and we can choose to believe that makes us the center of it all. That doesn’t make it true.
The falsity may be found, as ever, in the temptation to see oneself as a distinct being able to subsist in that customized environment, rather than what we are: individuals charged with improving the civilization we have been provided.