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Data-Driven Society and our Sci-Fi Trajectory

Will humanity lose our collective ability to understand the questions that connect us to our past?

· Technology and Future,Politics Economics Institutions

The vision humanity holds for our collective future seems to be encapsulated in our science fiction films and books. For most, it is hard to imagine what our own future lives will look like, let alone how society will progress and develop in the advent of new technologies. These fictional realities may be false, but the author's vision for technological progress and the subsequent sociological response, tend to shine light on harsh truths the average person isn't willing to accept. One harsh truth comes in the form of the obesity epidemic in Wall-E, in which the Artificial Intelligence actively encourages a complacent and sedentary lifestyle. Another harsh truth shows a reality where philosophers have been replaced by technologists, in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the author depicts hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings waiting 7.5 Billion years for a computer to calculate the answer to "the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything" (Adams 2021). The last hard truth comes in the form of the cyclical nature of society, where G. Michael Hopf in his book 'The End: A postapocalyptic novel', coins the phrase, "Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times" (G Michael Hopf 2014). Our present age is trumpeted as the "information age"; everything we interact with digitally can be turned into data and analysed. This obviously has not always been true, but as Hobart and Schiffman point out, "our [digital] culture so mesmerizes us that we fail to recognise other information ages associated with earlier technological changes" (Hobart & Schiffman 2000). It is to this point I will explore a very brief history of the information ages that have emerged, identifying whether the rise of systems such as Society 5.0, along with advancements in Machine Intelligence, are having a regressive impact on global culture. Where the new global culture may seemingly be promoting the worst values depicted within science fiction, that of complacent, sedentary, and unquestioning individuals. 


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Through observation, classification and experimentation, the natural world has been understood, controlled, and exploited. So too can the examination, classification and experimentation on human behaviour achieve the same outcomes. There is often a clear distinction between the intellectuals who want to understand something, and the intellectuals who want to exploit something. To this degree, the data we emit can be studied to get a greater understanding of human nature, and it can also be examined to influence individual behaviour. The ability to influence behaviour is a cause for concern that McLaren identified in his paper comparing an Ecological Civilisation to Society 5.0, "The story of humanity's future is being written for us… It is the story of humanity handing over its autonomy and agency to a machine intelligence in the hope that it will solve all the problems [humanity has created and has become incapable of solving]" (McLaren 2021). 


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How can humanity's future be written for us? The answer lies in the ambitious goal of the Japanese Government in creating what they have dubbed 'Society 5.0':

 "… a society where the various needs of [the public] are finely differentiated and met by providing  the  necessary  products  and  services  in  the  required  amounts  to  the  people  who  need  them  when  they  need  them,  and  in  which  all  the  people  can  receive  high-quality  services  and  live  a  comfortable,  vigorous  life  that  makes  allowances for their various differences such as age, sex, region, or language" (Government of Japan 2015).


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This society described by the Japanese Government is highly dependent on an individual's personal data and meta-data in relation to their interactions with the environment. All this data collected, however cannot be analysed and acted upon by humans, the outcomes and decisions of what the 'necessary products and services' are, and 'in the required amount', will become factors of machine learning, deep learning or classical algorithms. These algorithms will be established in such a way that they are always analysing you, your thoughts, your behaviours, and your interactions with others. The intention it seems is not nefarious, the algorithms will run your life, such that it can take away the need for 'redundant' thoughts and behaviours and allow you more time to do 'human things'. By redundant, I'm alluding to the chores that we complain about, the washing, the ironing, the cooking, the scheduling of our day, amongst other activities. These chores not only occupy physical time required to complete, but also the thought space, where our inner monologue asks, "what am I having for dinner tonight?", "can I be bothered cooking?", "I should have gotten the ingredients earlier". The question then arises, with all this free time given back to society, will they use their time productively? Or will we continue the with our current trajectory as participants in the attention Olympics, where Google, Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, and Netflix are competing for the greatest share of human attention?


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Humans, as far as we are currently aware, are the only animals that are able to recollect past events (episodic memory) and anticipate future needs (future planning) (Clayton, Bussey & Dickinson 2003). If as I've suggested, science fiction is shaping the collective perception of future realities, then understanding how information technology has evolved to this point is fundamental to observing the linear reality. To avoid a play by play of 12000 years of historic narrative I'll allude to McLaren's summary of Hobart and Schiffman's historic narrative, "Information Ages" (Hobart & Schiffman 2000) to bring us onto the same page.

  • "We have seen the profound importance of writing in enabling us to transcend oral culture.
  • We have seen how abstract analytical thought was augmented by the phonetic alphabet.
  • We have seen information management in the invention of the codex and information explosion through the invention of the printing press.
  • We have seen information being managed through the symbols and algorithms of mathematics.
  • We have seen information management enter the electronic age, and the creation of the power and play of modern computers."

Our shared past began with an oral culture. Writing allowed what is known to exist outside the knower. Or as Hobart and Schiffman explained, "Information is thus wedded to writing insofar as writing gives stability to the mental objects abstracted from the flow of experience, such that one can access them readily and repeatedly" (Hobart & Schiffman 2000 pp.30). A good example of this is Carl Linnaeus' hierarchical classification of nature into kingdoms; the animal kingdom, plant kingdom and mineral kingdom (Bowler 2000). That is to say, there is still the real-world object that was observed, and through the information technology of writing Linnaeus was able to record an abstract representation of the real-world object through numbers, pictures, descriptions, and observations. 

This ability to create and measure abstraction has continued to evolve and increase in complexity throughout time. New information technologies have been a necessary hurdle in the measurement process. To visualise this, imagine a hotel in the 18th century. If the hotel owner wanted to record information about their guest, they would employ someone to capture it. However at the time there would be a limited amount of information that would be relevant. Perhaps only a name, number of guests, a room number, and number of nights stayed. These days hotels are able to capture and record the above information often without human intervention. We've also increased the amount of datapoints we can capture, including the time the patron arrives, when they enter and exit their rooms, what they've ordered, what they've watched, whether they have used the facilities of the hotel, what they've browsed on the 'free Wi-Fi'. The physical human through observations of their data and meta-data has an abstract reality created on their behalf. Where society 5.0 becomes a concern is in connecting your personal abstract reality, with all other companies’ abstraction of you. Connecting your bank purchases, with your Google Maps geo-location tag, with your google search history, with your Netflix watch history. Then showing the interplay of your abstraction with your friend’s abstraction through an algorithm that analyses when you come into proximity with a 'friend' on Facebook. Lastly having Facebook, Google, Amazon, and any other app recording soundbites of your conversation and categorising your relationships based on the conversation meta-data observed (Day, Turner & Drozdiak 2019). You are a human, living in the real world, but you are also a collection of abstract datapoints which large technology companies along with governments are trying to connect. Perhaps there is a genuine desire to understand you better but following the logic of inventions and discoveries throughout history, there will always be companies and institutions that are trying to exploit your abstracted reality, to redirect your attention and wealth towards them. 


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The Wall-E reality of a complacent and sedentary lifestyle logically would occur when, as the Japanese Government explains, "various needs of [the public] are finely differentiated and met by providing the necessary products and services in the required amounts to the people who need them when they need them" (Government of Japan 2015). Following on from that logic, we are living in a time of unparalleled wealth. With these good times, have we already, or are we becoming 'weak men'?  If this new reality was common knowledge, would humanity still be overly determined to embody the complacency that society 5.0 requires? Or would we actively take on responsibility, relinquishing the control the algorithms have over us? If we choose the former, then perhaps humanity has done all it can in the pursuit of knowledge and come to a point, that Marshal McLuhan famously prophesized, that "Man becomes… the sex organs of the machine world" (Mcluhan 1973). 

The last point I want to explore is the nature of knowledge, and whether humans need participate in knowledge acquisition. Just because a few select humans have created inventions, developed formulas, or provided actionable observations that has led to the technological progress of civilisation as a whole. Does that mean it should always be human's moving us forward? Are we destined to become the hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings who firstly lack the understanding to ask the right questions, and secondly rely on technology to 'calculate' the answer? If we adopt Elon Musk's world view, then yes, as he believes human intelligence will soon become redundant, "if you assume any rate of advancement in AI, we'll be left behind" (Ricker 2016). Elon goes on to explain, you are already a cyborg… we just operate on a low bandwidth, we interact with our phones using two thumbs, and our computers with ten fingers. His vision for 'saving humanity' comes in the form of a Neuralink, 'ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers' (Neuralink 2021). The ambitious goal of Neuralink is to be able to download information, rather than learn, by transmitting information through thousands of electrodes stimulating the right neurons. If we continue down this road, the bridge we will eventually have to cross is discerning whether the process of learning is the same as downloading information to our brain. Learning as far as I understand isn't simply about rote memorisation and recall, the information we process is in relation to our environment, previous experience, the relationship with the informer, how we convey the understanding to others. Knowledge learned isn't a static packet of information, it requires a continued exploration and questioning of assumptions.


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Carl Sagan articulated it best:

"There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question" (Sagan 2008). 

Our cry to understand the world is an emergent process, we cannot simply download the entire knowledge of human understanding via the internet. We learn through experience, through questioning reality within context of past information consumed. Our consumption of information, and therefore the questions we can ask is being co-opted, rather than aided by the internet as McLaren argues in his article on the 'Triumph of Virtual Reality'. Explaining that, "Engagement with the internet… changes our brains in such a way that we become less able to focus on deep concept formation which requires exercising our long-term memory" (McLaren 2012). There is already evidence our focus and attention spans are waning, with a Microsoft study indicating the average attention span has dropped to eight seconds, from 12 seconds in the year 2000 (McSpadden 2015). There is seemingly two competitions amongst global companies in the ‘human attention’ space. One competition is to free up as much time as possible, whilst the other competition is to conquer the greatest amount of free attention. We are what we consume, and if we continue down the path of least resistance with respect to our attention, we will increasingly have our attention dedicated to entertainment. That which allows for instant gratification, holding down the digital morphine button day in, day out. Perhaps though it is too late, our society has become so accustomed to instant gratification that we are enticed by the idea of becoming a brain in a vat, "having our brain hooked up to a sophisticated computer program that can perfectly simulate experiences of the outside world" (Hickey 2021).

The distinction between the physical and the digital world has continued to blur since the emergence of modern computation. We have fallen into a trap where "our [digital] culture so mesmerizes us that we fail to recognise other information ages associated with earlier technological changes" (Hobart & Schiffman 2000). Without this retrospective awareness, we are blindly existing in the present. Without a historical context, it is difficult to understand the trajectory society is taking. The science fiction realities we're exposed to, are not simply forms of entertainment. They also operate as a potential observation of future possibilities based on a natural progression of technologies. A culture of mindless consumption, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle as in Wall-E is fast becoming a reality with the implementation of Society 5.0. The fear we have for human's being able to 'keep up' with the emergence of Artificial Intelligence has led to a potential reality where the traditional acquisition of knowledge through education is being replaced by a theoretical brain-machine interface. We exist in a time of unparalleled wealth, where with any struggle you can think of, someone is thinking of a way to solve and automate it, to reduce the need for human input. Without using our muscles, they atrophy. So too, if we are no longer required to contemplate our day-to-day activities, nor develop our understanding through questioning our shared reality, will our mind atrophy. "Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times" (G Michael Hopf 2014). To overcome the reality of weak individuals, it seems we are hoping to automate, such that society can continue to grow at the desired trajectory without being exposed to cycles of human nature.


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