Code Overload is a four part series that originally appeared in The Digital Filmmaker July 2011. Here, for the first time on my two blogs are the original four parts in sequence. It is long but when reading the whole you will get its full value.
Code Overload: The Beginning
In 1856, the Industrial Age was starting to take root. The world would never be the same again.
After a visit to Liverpool Ralph Waldo Emerson in his book, “Voyage to England,” wrote the following:
“Machinery has been applied to all work, and carried to such perfection, that little is left for the men but to mind the engines and feed the furnaces. But the machines require punctual service, and, as they never tire, they prove too much for their tenders. Mines, forges, mills, breweries, railroads, steam pump, steam-plough, drill of regiments, drill of police, rule of court, and shop-rule, have operated to give a mechanical regularity to all the habit and action of men. A terrible machine has possessed itself of the ground, the air, the men and women, and hardly even thought is free.”
Substitute computer or computers whenever you see the words machinery, machine, machines, or mechanical. That is only the beginning. When we consider the growing power of computers today, the influence they have over our lives how we use them in the name of progress, there is more, much more and much of it has to do with intellectual overload.
Though written more than 150 years ago, Emerson’s words ring true today. There is no denying his prescience.
It is not far-fetched to invoke “Brave New World,” “1984,” the movies “Minority Report” and “I Robot.” Those who write speculative fiction see the future more clearly in their crystal ball. George Orwell, Aldus Huxley, Isaac Asimov, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson to name a few, have created a future in fiction that is more real every day. As Pogo said on Earth Day in 1970, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
I am not against advances in technology. I would be lost without my computer and the magic I invoke by using it. I do not want to deny technocrats the changes they bring us. But I believe that we should not give ourselves away to what is new in the world of code writing because it looks, feels and even might taste good. If we are doing it for the sake of advancement in society, are we contemplating what the consequences might bring? Are we sure are advances in technology always for the good, for the betterment of our lives or do they exist because the smartest kids in the room are very inventive? Consequences matter.
Code Overload: Technological Wizards
There is a new class of technological wizards who have gone beyond where anyone thought they could in the pursuit of what each considers the eventual easing of doing what once seemed impossible. These innovators are important, but we should learn to control how we use what they create for the sake of preserving the once important individual. Understand that when I say individual, I mean a person true to who they are, rather than a person who wants to take over the world because he/she believes they will make the world a better place. I think of the individual in context as part of the whole but not wanting to dominate or control the world.
Where are we now and why this essay? The problem is that technocrats bear gifts that are very heady and difficult to ignore. Almost no one has the strength to turn away from them or turn them away. Some recent advances in the use of computers and code writing caught my eye. They have not been as widely reported, as they should have been. They worry me because they are extreme. Programmers in a hurry to create something new, now go where at one time we and maybe even they thought were places where no one could ever tread. It means the writers of code are winning. But in this uber-technological age in which we live, most people are unaware of what is going on around them. Are they better off living in ignorance? Perhaps. Then again, if they did know what was taking place, could they do anything about it? That answer is easy – probably not.
Drones in war are now a ubiquitous presence. They have a permanent place in warfare. That role will only grow. Drones are destroyers. They cost money but not American or as in Afghanistan and Pakistan, allied, that is NATO lives. However, their use is not perfect. Missing a target is commonplace. More to the point, those killed at a chosen target are sometimes innocent civilians. Intelligence about the target and the instantaneous choice made by a technician is not always the right choice. This is to a degree due to information overload. More simply put, it is the inability of the drone master to properly guide the weapon to a clean kill because – pause – there was too much information to deal with or two many drones to manipulate. Despite live video images transmitted to the command center from the drone itself and often very good intelligence, it has become increasingly difficult for the technician to sort good from bad information. To some extent, this has to do with multi-tasking.
Code Overload: Multi-tasking
As a civilian, using a cell phone, to text or access an app while driving is multi-tasking at its most dangerous. It is a way of life. It is something else when a specialist in the military sitting in command center has to multi-task when lives are at stake. More than ever, these highly trained young men and women have to handle multiple drones on the prowl, masses of incoming intelligence, including thousands of hours of video, high altitude photos and untold hours of phone and what the military calls “signal intelligence” all of which comes flooding in faster than the mind can process it. It should be easy to understand why some failure ensues. People make mistakes because the mind becomes fatigued from information overload as it tries to process all the information they have to deal with. Despite powerful algorithms created to relieve the human mind of these decisions of life and death, it is the person in front of the screen who makes the ultimate decision to pull the trigger. It is a case where multi-tasking gets in the way of high performance. It is a hothouse situation where the mind is perhaps dizzy from intense pressure and the possible confusion brought on by constantly updated information. The failure of an accurate interpretation of all the information can result as it sometimes does in a disaster we have become accustomed to in Afghanistan. I am sure our military is trying mightily to solve this problem, one it calls, as I have, information overload. It will only get worse before it gets better. I am cynical enough to believe that by then, a new problem will emerge that dwarfs this one.
Algorithms are becoming the new magic bullets. There are enough scientists, researchers and writers of code who believe they can create a computer that works faster, or certainly more selectively, than does the human brain. These people think, “the human brain just isn’t processing data fast enough.” We think the brain has limits, but of that, we are not certain. People in labs want to augment the brain with new algorithms that, according to the latest information, will enhance our life experience and make us better at coping with every piece of information that comes our way. We, I am sure, recognize that the socialization of the world is increasingly dominating how we live. What are we to do about maintaining our fragile individuality?
Code Overload: Our Fragile Individuality
Intelligence for me has always been about the ability to make connections. The brain, and how we use it, comes first. The new technocrats think that the computer equals strength, our mortal brains weakness. I suspect the augmenters in our midst, those who are desperate to flood our brains with potentially more than they can handle, are the new true believers. Many dwell in a world dominated by the Internet. This is the echo chamber effect that now dominates original thought. Look at any Facebook page or any other social network. We now allow our thoughts and ideas to flow though a broad pipeline that ends splattered on page after page of communal outreach. Oddly, the mind imprisons itself in public. It is impossible to hide anything in the world of social media. All thought is bleeding publically until dry. Augmenters think people need help. Thus, they rise in society where they exist to let you think you know more without you thinking at all.
At one time, at who knows what personal expense or risk, a person did everything he or she could to disguise or withhold, at least in part, his or her emotions. Recently on Fox there was a program called, “Lie to Me.” It was about an expert in facial recognition who used his skills to tell when people lied, told the truth or were hiding something to protect him, her self or someone else. It was about the technology of facial recognition but always guided by what the main character saw and thus translated into a useful aide to, usually, law enforcement. After all, a smile, a frown, the twist of one’s lips, the arc of one’s head, how a person uses his or her eyes and lips — whether narrow, normal, or wide is important as we distance ourselves further from privacy. How all those moods, motions and modes affect why a person is acting in a certain way, is worth knowing if there is a need to know what is going on inside a person’s head. The question is can a computer tell guilt from innocence. Doubtful.
These new sets of code are becoming increasingly popular as more security conscious elements in society try to determine what is true, what is a lie. The so-called “observation machines” using mainly facial recognition, bodily image recognition and anything else that appears in front of their all seeing eyes will no doubt enhance our ability to protect us from harm. Importantly, business, too, is using these new algorithms to get inside the heads of the consumer to help influence him or her to buy what they are selling. Dubbed “computer vision,” it is another nail in the coffin of privacy. This means potentially, a person will no longer be the rightful owner of his or her thoughts. It is happening as I write.
Code should not be the god that determines how we go about our daily life. To be sure, there seems no apparent way to regulate business and industry. However, we had better train the computer technician to be independent if possible of the machines he or she operates. The price of runaway technology may be too high. We should be sure of how much we give up of ourselves for the sake of progress. At the very least, we should think hard about what we develop in the future and how it will serve us in a way that is truly beneficial. Perhaps it is time to have a code of ethics.