10/05/07    Remember when surfing was strictly a water sport, memory was something you lost with age, an application was for employment, a program was a tv show, a cursor was someone who used profanity, a keyboard was a piano, a web was a spider's home, a virus was the flu, a cd was a bank account, a hard drive was taking the family on vacation, a mouse was what cats chased, and if you had a 3 inch floppy -
you hoped nobody noticed?

Although many of us do remember the days before digital, consider that the "kids" who've never known a life WITHOUT computers, vcrs, dvds and the like are now in COLLEGE. And even though it's hard to believe that so much time has passed, consider that this explosion of technology has taken place in a mere 20 years. It is impossible to imagine how far integrated we will be with these technologies in 20 more years. But just for fun, let's assume the worst (that's me - Mr. Cheerful)...

In the late 80s, Gene Roddenberry's TNG crew introduced us to the "Borg", at that time the coolest new villain ever. What made them so scary was that they wiped out entire worlds not out of hatred, or for military, religious or political gain, or territory or any other agenda. They were simply following a set of computer subroutines that mandated the evolution of their race by assimilating technology and entire cultures, and were relentless in executing these instructions. You could not reason with them, bargain with them or negotiate with them in any way, and they were unstoppable. Star Trek got a lot of mileage out of that arc and it always made for delightfully disturbing sci-fi story telling.

However, a couple years ago me and the family were on a long overdue vacation in Las Vegas, having lunch at a very swanky restaurant and there was this guy who appeared to be talking to himself, till I noticed he had one of those "phone implant" deals stuck in his ear. The whole time he had his lunch he worked feverishly on his wireless laptop and talked to whoever on his earphone. It occurred to me that maybe what really made the Borg so scary is that we ARE the Borg. In this wireless world we certainly are more connected to the "collective" than at any other time in history. And recently I watched a piece about some British techie-guy who has successfully implanted a wireless device that he could use to work a mechanical hand with his thoughts, and was in the process of developing a brain implant that would allow him to access wireless internet in his head and be able to transmit keyboard commands just by thinking about it. I don't believe this can be done, but then there's a lot of things I didn't think could be done that we take for granted even now, let alone 30 or 40 years from now.

The pace of everyday life continues to accelerate and sometimes it seems like the human race is adopting an "insect mentality" as we relentlessly, almost mechanically, do our part to maintain the hive in the hope for a little honey at the end of the day. Another sci-fi reference that goes WAY back is George Lucas' first film THX1138, which did not necessarily touch upon the inter-connectivity of mankind, since the story was written way before digital or wireless anything, but was an ominous look at the "hive mind" that resulted from finally achieving a Utopian society. If and when we become a global Utopian civilization, it's anybody's guess as to how contingent this social structure will be on our integration with the advanced technologies that are created from it.

Now so far this hasn't been an issue, in fact it's been great. Not only can we be in touch with our families and friends 24 hours a day, but we have access to information we never had before, and can see things we would never see in real life. But there have been subtle changes in how the family unit interacts. We may be connected, but we actually SEE each other less now than before because all our schedules are fuller and more demanding. Many family members work conflicting hours, have considerable drive times to deal with every day, and have busier social lives than before. And when you do have that rare occasion where everyone is home at the same time, everyone ends up engaged in their own personal activity or we all just watch a movie or something. Can you remember the last time the whole family sat down at the kitchen table for supper? It was probably Christmas or Thanksgiving. I suppose it's a small sacrifice in exchange for the incredible opportunities we have in our daily lives, and our technologies are largely responsible for these opportunities.

But as personal contact decreases and we become more and more reliant on our cell phones and laptops and BlackBerrys to stay connected with the rest of the human race, I can see a time in the future where biological wireless satellite implants, like the one the British techie-guy is working on, might actually be commonplace. Brainwave recognition may not be that much different than voice recognition. And the infrastructure for such devices already exists now, not just in the wireless internet arena but in satellite GPS and business transaction technologies. At the risk of sounding all psycho-biblical, it's easy to foresee a time when cash is completely obsolete, and our accounts are credited or debited electronically, verifiable by our identity which is instantly confirmed by GPS chip location. Identity theft would be nearly impossible since you can't be in 2 places at the same time, let alone a whole host of other identifiers such as fingerprints, retinal scans or even DNA recognition. Acts of violence would be difficult to commit as well. For example, if someone is murdered, his GPS locator would have recorded the time and location, or at least a forensic analysis would establish time-of-death, and a simple cross reference would match that time and location to a specific person or persons. War itself could even become obsolete.

No money, no crime and no war? Sounds great, doesn't it? Actually, it sends chills down my spine and makes my blood run cold. This is slavery in it's most sinister form, whether it's to the chosen few who govern the necessary parameters of this technological integration, to the technology itself, or to the artificial intelligence that makes it work and that has, at some point we missed, become self-aware and modified it's subroutines to accommodate it's own purpose. It is a very real possibility that the role of man and machine could be reversed without us even noticing. It would have been a cool Star Trek episode to have the crew go back in time thousands of years before the Borg crossed that blurry line between being a brilliant high tech race and being little more than cyber-slaves.

Now as wildly entertaining as this all is, my personal vision of the future is somewhat different. I see more of a Blade Runner or Minority Report scenario where although we are fully immersed in our technologies, as human beings we are still as screwed up as ever. And at some point even farther into the future I see the likelihood of the human race being forced to take a giant step backwards, allowing our genetic evolution to catch up with our technological evolution. Mother Nature always finds a way to balance things out, but it aint always pretty. Perhaps the best vision of the future we could embrace is the one Mr. Roddenberry had when he came up with the whole Star Trek thing in the first place. That man, machine and nature would work together inspired by the discovery that we are not alone in the universe, unified to find our place on Earth so we may find our place among the stars. It may very well be that our greatest fear is not that our machines might learn to think, feel and be self-aware, but that someday we ourselves might forget how to do so.

Q: How many borg does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: All of them.

a printable PDF manuscript of Rantings & Ravings