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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Life in The Machine

My wife and I are in Munich now. We are enjoying Christmas with old friends, whom we have known through high school, university and the first job.  As I am reflecting on the magic of this relationship, I have realized that it predates the Time of The Machine, or our contemporary society.  And I am not merely suggesting here that "the grass was greener, the light was brighter, the taste was sweeter, the nights of wonder, with friends surrounded, the dawn mist glowing, the water flowing, the endless river, forever and ever," as Pink Floyd once famously sang.

Imagine spending your free time with friends wherever, playing outdoors, biking, walking, or going to the movies or to somebody's house.  The parents needed not know and there were very few phones, so they had to believe that we were OK.  "Privacy matters," as Edward Snowden would say. Imagine standing in line at 5 a.m. in front of a bookstore to buy "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez or "Hopscotch" by Julio Cortázar. Later we would read them voraciously and enjoy heated literary discussions.

Professor Kazimierz Raczek, my high school history teacher, was sentenced to teaching in high school, not university,  because of his political past.  When he saw us for the very first time, he asked us to hang the state-sanctioned history books by the toilet, claiming that they would make "fine toilet paper that will last for the entire school year."  He would then calmly proceed to teach us from his own notes, memories, and old prewar history books that were strictly forbidden by the communists.  Imagine a high school teacher today in the U.S. attempting to challenge The Machine like this guy did.  Impossible! We simply adored him and no one in our class uttered a word for four years.
Imagine skipping classes in high school to read new books, learn about the universe, or have wild drinking parties punctuated by philosophical discourses; no TVs, no computers, but plenty of small pleasures of freedom stolen from an imperfect communist police state. I skipped almost exactly 1/2 of my high school to learn more about everything, be examined by the wise teachers, and graduate with highest honors. In my four years in high school I never took a single multiple choice test.  I had to solve open-ended difficult intellectual problems.  In fact, GRE was the first multiple-choice test in my life. (TOEFL is not worth mentioning.) I took it as a PhD student at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw with no preparation, not knowing what the heck it was.  I did sufficiently well to qualify for a Fulbright scholarship as one of the three Polish winners in the PhD student category in technical sciences.

My high school professor of Polish Literature, Krystyna Gara, had the quickest wit and sharpest stinging riposts known to mankind.  She challenged me to learn from university textbooks, and to study writers of many cultures.  How I write today in the languages I know, I owe to her. 
Now, imagine your child trying to emulate the richness of my intellectual experience in the one-dimensional kingdom of The Machine. Impossible! For starters, you would go to jail in this Land of the Free for criminal neglect of your children.  "You must not separate your children from me," hisses The Machine, and she locks them up daily in the vast prison system called "K through 12 schools." At the middle and high school level, the prison rules become stricter and your children are punished for every glimpse of their non-robotic, disobedient behavior. Being black or disabled makes the punishment even worse.

So what is The Machine?  Let me give you a hint: I am a consummate citizen of Machinedom.  I am an academic teacher. I use Google, and a plethora of electronic journals and databases for research. I email all the time, buy most things on the web, and write this blog.  I use GPS after dark and carry a smart phone that locates me down to 100 ft anywhere I go, and may be intercepting and transmitting any sound near it. On the other hand, I refuse to go near Facebook and I tweet only occasionally to communicate facts.  I read and I think.

At my friend's house in Munich, I picked up at random the Polityka, a Polish weekly equivalent of Der Spiegel, or a left-leaning version of The Economist.   In this Polityka issue (44(2931) p. 16), I ran into a two-page interview with Dr. Eben Moglen, Professor of Law at the Columbia University, entitled "Imprisoned in the Machine."

Professor Moglen defines the Machine as a virtual organism.  It consists of all of us, smart phones, computers, software, terminals, the surrounding surveillance cameras, the Internet, the cellular phone networks, satellites, drones, GPS, server farms, cloud computing, the NSA surveillance universe that taps into everything in the Machinedom, the FBI, CIA, the military forces, and so on.

Already in 1954, when I was still in diapers and von Neumann's team was constructing the first modern computers, Martin Heidegger warned us about the Machine in his Question Concerning Technology. Heidegger correctly predicted that humans are but a part of the technology-human system, and technology we think we create and control, in fact uses us  - and can consume us - just like anything else it touches in this world.

So, what does The Machine want and need?  She wants global reach and control, and she needs stable supplies of everything.  She also needs permanent amorphous enemies, preferably individuals who are outside of her domain.  Hence the permanent "war on terrorism" and the vast Homeland Security  apparatus created to protect The Machine.  You can think of Obamacare as a new addition to The Machine, and its medical portal as a default gateway tailored to her, but not to the people who aren't yet sufficiently reeducated.

The Machine applies her own machine learning methods to teach next generations.  So far, through extensive computerized testing and intensive use of computers in K through 12 schools, The Machine has been very successful in diminishing the roles normally played by human teachers, and decreasing their status.  It is important that children learn machine thinking directly from the elements of The Machine, instead of the free-wheeling, independent humans.  Therefore the next inevitable step is destruction of humanities and liberal arts.

The Machine needs skilled operators who provide her with the ever-more complex software and hardware, and feed her with energy and other raw materials.  But, The Machine does not like humans teaching these skills, therefore she exerts pressure to widen machine learning of all kinds, through online courses and MOOCS in particular.  Anything that prevents humans from influencing the youth is desirable. 

The results are clearly visible, just watch the young people intently staring at their smart phones for hours on end and avoiding human contact at all costs.  Reality is real only what it is mediated through The Machine.  So expect your child to propose marriage on Facebook or phone, rather than looking into the partner's eyes and uttering the magic words. 

The Machine is about enticement and control.  She entices us with offers of immediate pornographic pleasure, and she controls most of what we do through our smart phones, GPS, Google queries, web posts, emails, and credit card purchases. When I say "pornography," I do not mean just the old innocent offers of immediate sex.  Instead, I mean the savage computer games, the Facebook, the Twitter, TV, gratuitously violent movies, and the Shopping Channel.

I cannot imagine that under the old communist system people would be volunteering to reveal everything about themselves, their daily movements, friends and acquaintances, their sexual habits, families,  purchasing patterns, naked bodies, and infidelities big and small.  And most of these revelations are driven by a purely narcissistic exhibitionism. "It's all about you," whispers The Machine, and all too many humans buy this nonsense.

Just remember what Dante Alighieri saw happening to the self-centered gluttons: They lie in the Third Circle of Hell, sightless and heedless of their neighbors, just as they were cold and selfish in their empty lives played on Facebook. The vile, stinking slush, in which  they are trapped like pigs in industrial pig farms, is their penalty for overindulgence in food and drink, and other kinds of addiction, like taking their own pictures on smart phones or watching Fox News. The shady pig farm owners will be sent to the Fourth Circle of Hell for their greed.  You should see what lies in store for those wretched capitalists...
The Third Circle of Hell:  This is the future of selfies and other self-indulgent Facebookies.
But I digressed. So where from here?  Three thoughts come to my mind.  First, the complexity and speed of evolution of human languages and thinking exceed the speed of software writing in proprietary, fixed computer languages.  Second, The Machine works continuously and probably requires Tera watts of electrical power worldwide, especially in the U.S.   This power can be disrupted in many ways around the world.  Third, the center of gravity of human development will move away from the Machinedom, to people who know The Machine, use her elements when necessary, but live outside of her empire.  You know, those people who still talk with each other, eat dinners together, and say "I love you" to a person, not an iPad.

P.S. To visualize what education in The Machine can do to you, please see this sketch by Jon Stewart's reporters. No further comments are necessary.

P.S.P.S.  Jan 9, 2014. The high school prison superintendents arrest and expel their young captives a little too often, but even more if those captives are black, Hispanic, or disabled. The  most telling infraction is "defying authority," for which there is a suspension.  Whose authority exactly?  And on what authority? The Machine rejects young people acting like people and defying authority.

P.S.P.S.P.S.  Jan 10, 2014.  The Machine does not sleep, rest, or have fun.  Neither should her inner circle servants: The Wall Street traders.

P.S.^4 January 10, 2016, Oregon doctors band together to fight the efficient medical machine