Tech warnings from unlikely sources
By Mark Hurst • February 18, 2021

Before I start, a quick note of support for everyone in Texas who's suffering from power outages and other problems due to the recent extreme weather (see news). If you want to help, Joah Spearman provides this list of Austin nonprofits helping the homeless and first responders.

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Last week I wrote about the Silicon Valley "Matrix", a fully corporatized and surveilled layer of reality - or unreality - now in construction by Big Tech billionaires. Facebook's not-very "smart" glasses will launch later this year, as will human trials of Elon Musk's neural chip.

A few days after my column, an article was published, carrying a blunt assessment:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Facebook-branded set of VR goggles strapped to an emaciated human face - forever.

The intense imagery echoes Nineteen Eighty-Four and its famous line about "a boot stamping on a human face - forever." And I'd agree that the VR goggles, once they're fully distributed, will act much like Orwell's stamping boot. But that's not why I bring it up.

The reason I'm highlighting this particular article, and its validation of my "Matrix" warning, is where the article appeared. Written by Matthew Gault, the piece ran in WIRED magazine.

WIRED, you might remember, was the original promoter of the Web economy and its young leaders in Silicon Valley. For years, certainly throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, WIRED operated as a tireless booster and apologist for the rise of digital tech. All the more reason, then, to take note of this piece. Here's what Gault writes (emphasis mine):

Without decisive and radical action, our planet will continue to burn, the gap between the rich and poor will grow, and totalitarian political movements will flourish. All while some of us are plugged into a virtual world.

Worse, the virtual world will be one owned and controlled by the companies that create them. ... It's a promise of the future where the living conditions are still cramped but people have accepted their material conditions and retreated into a fantasy world created by the tech companies.

And it will not stop at screens and speakers. Elon Musk is working on a brain-machine interface called Neuralink. Similarly, Valve's Gabe Newell is heavily invested in creating the literal matrix. "We're way closer to The Matrix than people realize," Newell told IGN in 2020.

In a televised interview with New Zealand's 1 News, Newell was explicit about creating a world where brains and computers interface and computers are able to make changes to the brain. He even called the body a "meat peripheral"...

In other words, my column last week was not a dystopian flight of fancy, not some kind of end-times daydream that we can all laugh about before returning to the real world. This is our world now. When the richest and most powerful among us stand up and say, "I am going to create the literal matrix, with human bodies considered nothing but meat to plug in to the machine," believe them. The apex predators at the top of the economy are announcing their intentions: Why would we not take them seriously?

Speaking of the economy, I recently came across another analysis worth sharing. Writing about the dangerously concentrated power of Big Tech, the author concludes that antitrust efforts to break up the companies aren't sufficient. "Antitrust... is not sufficient to address the harms of surveillance capitalism," the author writes, adding that we must "disrupt the financial incentives that reward surveillance economics."

Who is this author issuing such a fiery condemnation of the current state of capitalism? It's Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita, Harvard Business School (NYT op-ed, Jan 29).

When someone from WIRED warns you about "the literal matrix," and when someone from Harvard Business School points at the best-performing stocks as companies to "disrupt" in order to save democracy, you know something's up.

Digital tech, and the monopolies that own it, have entered a new phase. They're like the alien at the end of the movie: Just when you thought you understood how it works - it molts! and evolves before your eyes! - and now it's an even more dangerous monster. In the movies, it's usually more horrifying visually, too, with mucus-like slime dripping everywhere. This is where we are with Big Tech now. It's the beginning of the boss battle.

Is this too negative? Not long ago I received an email from a reader who observed that my columns aren't as optimistic and positive as they were in years past. I responded that I've tried to highlight bright points - the good octopus, the inspirational Rubik's Cube film, as well as my new Good Reports site, spotlighting tools and teams that are creating good online. But the reader has a point. Tech developments are trending negative these days, and we ignore it at our peril.

An Arctic example

I'll finish with a quick story.

On my Techtonic show this week I interviewed Andrea Pitzer, author of the new book Icebound. (Listen to the interview or just get the podcast.) The book tells the story of early Dutch explorer William Barents, today a national hero in the Netherlands, who is credited as the first European explorer of the Arctic. On his third voyage, in 1596, Barents got stuck in the ice on an island 200 miles north of Siberia. He and his crew - those who survived, anyway - only made it out the next year. They had somehow endured months of unbelievable suffering.

What was Barents doing, in 1596, poking around the Arctic? He was trying to find a warm, open ocean at the North Pole - an idea that had been proposed by the ancient Greeks - in order to discover a quicker way to transport goods to China. Obviously Barents was wrong, as the North Pole in 1596 was fairly chilly.

Here's the twist: Barents, though his mission failed, helped open up the Arctic to European whaling, which kicked off a centuries-long acceleration of industrial development there. Today we see the results of over 400 years of industrial activity around the world: a warming climate that is beginning to yield, at last, an open ocean at the North Pole. The ancient Greeks turned out to be right, just a little early in their prediction.

And the acceleration continues. As the Arctic warms, and the trading route to China gets ever easier, all the major powers look to do even more trade, thus accelerating the trend further. Indigenous communities, offering their climate knowledge, are often ignored. Instead, what gets attention is the latest venture of the Big Tech billionaires.

For example, Elon Musk got a huge boost of publicity from his announcement that Tesla is buying $1.5 billion in bitcoin. The computational requirements of Bitcoin, as I pointed out last week, now match the energy usage of Argentina - and soon, that of Norway. Our further adoption of Bitcoin serves to warm the Arctic even faster. (It also makes Elon Musk even richer, which will no doubt prompt him to hype it yet further: a vicious cycle of online promotion, energy waste, and global warming.)

Once again: Is this too negative? I spoke via Zoom to a group of business leaders last week. During Q&A an attendee said, "I feel like I need a Xanax." Ouch. I don't want to spread despair. Instead, I'm trying to raise awareness about what's happening, so you can decide for yourself what to do. (And you can always pitch in: there are those Austin nonprofits, and my own Good Reports, among others.)

Awareness is the key point. And part of that is realizing who's raising the alarm. If it's people from WIRED and Harvard Business School, pay attention. And I'll continue to do my part. Once we've raised awareness, we can work together, as April Glaser put it, to "move slow and fix things."

I'd have to say #8. You? (Email me.)

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Until next time,

- Mark Hurst
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