The machine is using us

Imagine the internet as an enormous machine. Do we use the machine, or is the machine using us?

This is the premise behind a brilliant video posted on YouTube recently, an imaginative exploration of the ideas behind “Web 2.0” by an associate professor of Digital Ethnology at Kansas State University. At the time of writing it has been viewed by well over a million people, speaking much of the power of internet to connect and inform us. Reading the comments left by viewers of video however speaks something of the opposite.

I was fascinated by the idea of the internet once: the convergence of media and content which captivated almost everybody in the late 90’s—time of boom before bust for what is now called Web 1.0, and birthplace for champions of an interconnected, permanently connected available-on-demand future is now—a Brave New World. How soon the imaginary becomes the ordinary…

The idea behind the video is intriguing—that the internet is slowly evolving into a living, breathing, mindful entity through our use of it; the pathways we take, the content we create, the way we label things all teaching the“machine” to“think.” Is the machine serving us, or are we serving the machine?

For people who enjoy finding connections between things and following the thread of ideas, the video alludes to the concept of artificial intelligence extracted to the power of n, as seen in the Terminator and Matrix movies, and first imagined by that original prophet of science fiction turned fact: Isaac Asimov, in a short story he declared to be his favourite: The Last Question.

I’m something of a nay-sayer towards these things now. Don’t get me wrong—I love utopian ideals even more than the next idealogue, but experience has taught me to temper my starry-eyed idealism with a I-hope-it’s-not-just-cynicism, down-to-earth realism, a touch of practicality to go with heart-felt humanism in much the manner of a blind man’s stick—useful in avoiding painful collisions with concrete.

In my opinion the internet is akin to the old analogy of a million monkeys typing away on typewriters, occasionally producing a masterpiece. Yes the technology is fantastic—I make my living using it—but the content it delivers, the way and the what it is used for still have a very long way to go.

Or to put it another way, I see a better world coming through the actions of better people rather than better technology. With the means to end poverty and hunger well within our reach, it seems that it is people who need to change rather than the machines that they use.

Perhaps more than anything else on earth, the internet brings us close to an experience of infinity, such is its ever expanding vastness, but infinite what exactly? The occasional, enlightening piece of brilliance like this video; or the endless, mindless comments left by users of sites like YouTube. The imagination denying reality of the latter speaks much of the term lowest common denominator—proof if any was needed to convince the worst cynic of humanity of their beliefs.

On a lighter, brighter note, if the music in the video is your sort of thing, it is There’s nothing impossible by Deus, an Autechre, µ-ziq influenced machine-style electronica also known as ambient or IDM (intelligent dance music)—terms dependent on which decade you grew up in and what side of the Atlantic you come from. You could argue that such music is now ten years out of fashion, but am I the only one who thinks the 00’s have permanently put an end to fashion and trends as definable states in time? I hope so, although the argument could be made that it is me who has fallen out of fashion…

Right, I’d better get on over to Sri Chinmoy Radio and calm myself down…

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