survaillance camera

That eerie feeling may be technocreep

People’s intimacy with technology is beginning to turn unsettling

It seems safe to say that most people are rightfully frightened by the implications of widespread and comprehensive state surveillance, especially when confronted with the implications to democracy and privacy.

Many of us will pooh-pooh the danger, citing the let-them-I-have-nothing-to-hide meme, which, though unflatteringly likely in many cases, is counterintuitive to our sense of boundaries. We feel creeped-out.

No one doubts the need for national security, or having in place technologies that can help law enforcement catch bad guys and bring them to justice. But where does one draw the line between security needs and the right to privacy? One sensible test that may quickly highlight the conundrum and provide a possible ethical solution is technologist Thomas P. Keenan’s Anne Frank test. How comfortable would one feel if the Nazis had had the presently available technology to see someone through walls with an iPhone app? Clearly, this points up the importance of who’s in charge and what their motives are.

Still, obvious cases like that aside, it’s not always clear what the full dimensions of being creeped out are. Sexual creepiness seems to be the one most common and easiest to identify – the dark allure or sexual magnetism some people give off that can make one feel suddenly vulnerable, like Little Red Riding Hood suspecting a wolf. And sometimes that sexual creepiness can seem to climb to a whole new level when it is public and seemingly normalized, as in the case of Japanese vending machines that dispense used schoolgirl panties.

Creepiness is not the same as fear, although it certainly may invoke it. Rather creepiness can generate a kind of existential mini-crisis of identity, what Freud called Das Unheimlich (The Uncanny), a kind of archaic irruption of the weird in a personal way, such as, say, “when non-human things exhibit human-like behavior,” says Keenan. And certainly, the more we continue to uncover about the mechanics of human being, the more such kinds of creepiness will prevail.

In his new book Technocreep, Keenan goes into great detail covering the many varieties of creepiness related to our growing and unsettling intimacy with technology. He says his “book is about the unseen ways in which technology is already changing our lives.” He provides countless startling examples from areas ranging from sensor creep to biological creep to intelligence creep to bolster his thesis that humans are quickly reaching a point –the so-called Singularity – wherein humans and machines will no longer function side-by-side but merge finally, with unknown consequences for our species.

His basic premise here is, to simplify, that computing power has grown so exponentially that no one human can any longer understand its processes and that in the near-future the only way to keep up with machines is by partially merging with them – i.e., voluntarily cyborging ourselves.

Interestingly enough, not everyone is unhappy about the significance of a human-machine merging. One group I receive newsletters from, the Buddhist Geeks, see technology as a way of getting past the limitations and destructiveness of often-anarchic human desire. For them, such a merge would betoken the rise of the Nietzschean Űbermensch, which would kind of be like leaving behind our analog limited thinking skills for a new digital consciousness.

But then again not everyone has regarded such digital nirvana as the savior of humankind. Reminiscent of Keenan’s explorations and findings is French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul’s seminal work, The Technological Society (1954), which is already describing how the tools and techniques of the technological have gone from being an important means to an end (i.e., the betterment of the human condition through the gradual development of civilization) to becoming an end in themselves, and in the process the dialectical activity which has defined humanity and given it breadth and reason has been subsumed into the technological from which there is no escape.

In perhaps the single most-warped example of coming creepiness, Keenan cites contemporary French philosopher Rebecca Roche who sees a time when, say, a prisoner’s mind can be uploaded to a computer and their mental cycle manipulated.  By such means, she notes with only a touch of French jocularity, one could take the mind of a serial killer sentenced to 1,000 years and provide the equivalent experience of imprisonment in something like eight hours.

As Roche puts it, “the eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation.”  Keenan adds, rather less dryly, “So that vicious serial killer or hardened terrorist could be home in time for supper.”  Of course, if we can manipulate time to that extent, then time becomes virtually irrelevant to the human experience.

Perhaps the key question is whether we can stop it.  One might even ask if there is any great popular urge to stop it. And even if there were such an urge the energy required to reverse the inertia involved may be beyond our ken. We may be hurtling toward a brave new frontier of the human experience, wherein the age-old dialectic of subject-object is finally resolved, or toward what Elizabeth Kolbert describes in her new book, The Sixth Extinction, an end of the human species as unstoppable as the melting polar caps.

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