Future Shock or Fixed?

08 May,2019


By Sanjeev Kotnala


Sanjeev Kotnala

I knew all along, there was something drastically wrong with the way the future is unveiling itself. I was on the lookout for a debate on ‘How to fix the future’. Andrew Keen’s session at the IAA World Congress held at Kochi, India in February this year probably opened new spaces for the discussion.

We are under constant surveillance. Our behaviour is slowly being nudged towards what the dominant biggies Google, Amazon, Facebook of the business want. It is the new era of ‘Winner-takes-it-all’ business that is creating polarisation of wealth rather than distributing it.

We are ignorantly working towards bettering their algorithms. We believe we are getting all this free. Not realising there is nothing free.

The internet is a boon, but may be the price we are paying for its services outweigh the benefits.  Internet is the new morphine. Like many of us, I feel trapped in the system. I am addicted to it. I am unable to withdraw or detox.

After having read ‘Internet is not the only thing’ by Andrew Keen, and having an equally polarised view of the internet, it was logical for me to pick his next book ‘How to Fix The Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age’.

And if this is the trailer, what profound changes Artificial and Alternate Intelligence can unleash on mankind, unless we pre-plan to control the damage. History is witness to the fact that we are blinded by our vision of advantages and rarely humans have thought of the future repercussion while it adopted a new regime of services and products.

Talking of the influence of internet-based services and addiction, I find it amusing and true. A potential threat humans failed to appreciate at the initial stage. “In the 1960s, we swam through the waters with only a few hooks: cigarettes, alcohol and drugs that were expensive and generally inaccessible… “In the 2010s, those same water are littered with hooks. There’s the Facebook hook, Instagram hook. The porn hook. The email hook. The online shopping hook. And so on. The list is long –far longer than it’s ever been in human history, and we’re only just learning the power of these hooks.”

On the other side, humankind has always been smart enough to get out of the damage path by intense social pressure, tweaking of the technology and bringing new guidelines and reforms to control the damage.  Half of us would believe that we would once again succeed in doing so with the Internet and AI.

In his book, Keen makes a very pertinent point: ‘The computer is the “Brain Outside ourselves” our “Second Brain”. From an evolutionary point of view, there we have taken an exponential leap. The new brain has outpaced our heart, our morality and beliefs. We are so preoccupied looking down at the second brains, that we forget how to look smartly at ourselves. As these devices get faster and faster, we appear to be standing still, as they produce more and more data about us, we are getting any more intelligent: as the devices become more powerful, we might lose control of our own lives. Instead of the singularity, we actually be on the brink of antithesis- let’s call it the “duality” –  an ever-deepening chasm between humans and smart machines and also between tech companies and the rest of humanity.

He adds what I call a real possibility:  ‘In the future, we may no longer be in charge of our own creation… Our technology might be developing a mind of its own, thereby excluding and disempowering, and enslaving us. The existential threat of self-conscious algorithms is very real. They might be our final invention.’

May be the answer lies in genuinely finding ‘What the Humans are good at’ and will always be a wee bit better than the machines. The current answer is ‘Nothing’. And we in our quest of making machines equally smart and emotive with a better power to process and take decisions are clearly on the path to wipe out any difference. I have my doubts. I am part of the small subset that believes; we are on the way to hastening the end of mankind. And one of the reasons I like reading Andrew Keen.

Most of us are intellectually challenged to understand the enormity of the technology revolution, the amplified inequalities, the creation of parallel power centres feeding on our data and the race to harnessing Alternate intelligence.

No doubt, Keen is open and transparent in stating: ‘This is a maybe book, based on the belief that the digital revolution can, like the industrial revolution, be mostly successfully tamed, managed and reformed. It hopes that the best feature of this transformation – increased innovation, transparency, creativity, even a dose of healthy disruption – might make the world a better place.”

The book title ‘How to fix the future’ is misleading. There are no solutions. There can’t be.

Keen presents a strong argument in favour of his belief that “No, not even the smartest technology can solve technological problems. Only people can”. I agree with him as he shares a few example and stories of how people are solving the thorniest problem in the digital age.

Though there are directional paths from education to governance, to fixing it well in time. The example quoted in the book of Governance in Estonia and the always-on technology for betterment in Singapore shows some promise. The concept of ‘Universal Basic Income’, paid to everyone for ‘Not Doing Anything’ is also explored but be warned that can never be the solution. The only good part is that Andrew Keen is raising the issue. He at least presents a possible solution around competitive innovation, government regulation, consumer choice, social responsibility by business leaders, and education. It is up for healthy discussion.

What I disliked was the constant reference to the 1516 work of Thomas More’s Utopia. It comes across as a framework of an idealistic world-inspiring Keen. But that is hardly the way life is expected to turn. Though it was interesting to note that if seen from a perspective More’s Utopia Map resembles a skull. May be there is a cryptic message in the map design that we are missing.

Go read this interesting book that may sound fiction to many followers and admirers of internet-led ease in life.



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