The New Digital Order: Nefarious Nerds and Machines of Loving Grace

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Remember that kid in high school with the ridiculously high IQ? Although you secretly envied his ability to effortlessly ace every test, you were obliged by social pressures to ostracize him as a geek, little knowing that this would inspire him to devise a devious plot to take over the world. Even less would you have suspected that by 2013 he would largely succeed in doing so.

Maybe the kid was named Steve Jobs, who actually dropped out of high school to start Apple Inc. in his parents’ garage. Indeed the longhaired, bespectacled, and unshaven loner clearly regarded himself as one of “the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers…the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world.” In retrospect, it’s hard to tell whether the intrepid entrepreneur was referring to his revolutionary computer designs and clever marketing schemes, or his unconventional way of dodging taxesfixing prices, engaging in dubious stock buy-backs, bullying and belittling both competitors and employees, or simply making his overseas workers endure such deplorable conditions that they commit suicide. As Jobs said in his famous speech quoted above, his kind is “not fond of rules,” which apparently includes codes of ethical conduct.

Or maybe the kid’s name was Mark Zuckerberg. He certainly looked innocent enough, with his boyish freckles and impish grin. And his quasi-legitimate brainchild, Facebook, sure seemed nifty at first in its ability to connect people over vast distances, until you realized that by compulsively clicking “like” you were catering to corporate advertisers, and realized that by revealing your religious and political beliefs, your daily activities and whereabouts, and all your associations, you were basically doing the CIA’s job for them. Although this idea was famously foisted in 2011 by the fake news agency, The Onion, we have since learned from Snowden and Greenwald that truth is scarier than satire, and surveillance more ubiquitous than sunshine. We’ve also learned that Zuckerberg has started a political advocacy group comprised of fellow billionaires who back politicians who back the Keystone XL pipeline, the construction of which would spell “game over” in the fight against global warming, according to leading climatologist James Hansen. Apparently Zuck is no tree-hugging Opie Taylor.

Of course, Operation “Revenge of the Nerds” could hardly be successful without Google, whose once playful-sounding name has become a common verb with ominous overtones. Never mind the Disneyland quality of the company’s cool California campus, the cute and colorful graphics on their interactive homepage, or their cheeky, informal motto of “Don’t Be Evil;” instead, consider how Google has been conspiring with the US government to construct what Julian Assange calls a “titanic centralizing evil.” In a recent New York Times review of a book by Google luminaries Schmidt and Cohen entitled The New Digital Age, the outspoken Wikileaks founder describes the authors—and by extension the whole company—as taking up the “white geeks’ burden” in its plans to remake humanity in America’s image and spread consumer technology to every last nook and cranny of the globe.

Apart from the devastating ecological impacts of the production, use, planned obsolescence, and proliferation of electronic gadgets (like this computer—guilty as charged), a fully wired world would surely mean the demise of privacy, which Google seems all to happy to hasten. By contrast, Assange, whose review was published just before the NSA leaks, foresees a slide toward authoritarianism, reminding us that centralization of power makes abuses inevitable. He warns against a system of “technocratic imperialism” in which:

“…democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as ‘participation’; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed… [in an] updated and seamlessly implemented [version of] George Orwell’s prophecy. If you want a vision of the future, imagine Washington-backed Google Glasses strapped onto vacant human faces—forever.”

Alternatively, imagine the scenario anticipated by Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, the preeminent futurist who popularized the term “technological singularity” to refer to the point in the supposedly near future when humans achieve immortality by uploading their entire brains to computers. For Kurzweil, whose escapist and death-denying tendencies are painfully apparent in the film “Transcendent Man,” the merger of man and machine is both inevitable and good.

Obviously not all techies are futurist fundamentalists, and many—notably Snowden himself—are more closely allied with the common man [sic] than with Big Brother. Indeed even Assange reminds us that Google began as “an expression of independent Californian graduate student culture—a decent, humane, and playful culture” that has lamentably “thrown its lot in with traditional Washington power elements, from the State Department to the National Security Agency.”

The growing alliance between geeks and spooks contains a further irony in that the tech industry as a whole was spawned from the rib of Ayn Rand, the notorious author-philosopher who hated the government and took radical individualism to its pathological extreme. Many Silicon Valley pioneers named their kids after Rand’s characters and dreamt of a utopian future in which global unity would be achieved through technology, and in which computers rather than nation-states would regulate the flow of information and goods. How this “California Ideology” traveled to Washington on its way to dystopia is artfully presented in the Adam Curtis documentary, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.”

Because of its open, collaborative, and laterally distributed nature, the Internet still holds promise as a tool for positive political, social, and even evolutionary transformation. Yet like all tools, it can obviously be used to help or harm, create or control, empower or imprison. Whatever the ultimate outcome, we can safely say—even amidst Twitter-fueled revolutions in Egypt—that the current system is proving to be far less democratic than imagined by the earliest techies, and far less bucolic than described by the poet Richard Brautigan:

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Darrin Drda is an artist, musician, and author of The Four Global Truths: Awakening to the Peril and Promise of Our Times. He is a Regular Contributor to Reality Sandwich and other online journals.

Image by Terry Johnston, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing. 

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