The Internet as we know it today really came into its own in 1997, and even then most Internet sites were crude. In the last decade or so, broadband has become commonplace and mobile devices are now highly integrated with the Internet.
That’s changed everything. We have become increasingly dependent on the Internet for things we need to maintain our normal life. If this trend continues, as most expect it will, we may not be able to survive so easily without the Internet.
And this is a huge risk we are taking. As recently as last July, Keith Alexander, the head of the country’s Cyber Command and the head and the National Security Agency announced that we are unprepared. Cyberattacks are on the increase, and a recent Defense Department report now assesses the risk as “grave.” And Congress has again failed to act to take any decisive measures to defend against this risk.
It seems very plausible that one day there may indeed be a catastrophic failure of the Internet, and it may be one that we cannot recover from quickly. It’s possible we could be without the Internet for weeks, months—or even years—in the case of an attack from something more serious like an EMP Bomb.
Given this, our culture really needs to reassess our dependence on the Internet and the rush to put everything in the cloud. As we connect more things to the Internet, our infrastructure may perform better, but it’s also greatly weakened.
It’s distinctly possible that we could, in one fell swoop, lose all services like the electric grid, water and sewer and almost all communications (telephone and television). Now picture this world, and picture how we’ll be able to survive if all of our assets have moved to the cloud. Not only could we be without utilities, but as we move to ebooks and online documentation, we could find ourselves without reference materials and without access to the instructions we’ll need to repair the damage. And if we need to travel and GPS and online maps are down, how will we find our way?
Everyone understands the concept of backing up and knows how important is, but where are our backups for the Internet? In fact, they are the old-school things that we have been steadily losing and replacing with the Internet, and if our culture continues this blind race to digitize everything, we could lose it all.
I suggest we all rethink just a bit and remember that we do need backups. Do go to a bookstore and buy printed books now and then. Do buy a printed atlas and printed maps, and keep them available. Do keep that old radio around. You may find one day you actually need them. They are the backups.
Remember, we live in a market-driven society, so if we don’t buy them, we may find no one will make them any longer. It’s ironic but true: The single best thing we may have to secure our future is to maintain some of the old-school ways from our past.
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Imagine that two people are carving a six-foot slab of wood at the same time. One is using a hand-chisel, the other, a chainsaw. If you are interested in the future of that slab, whom would you watch?
This chainsaw/chisel logic has led some to suggest that technological evolution is more important to humanity’s near future than biological evolution; nowadays, it is not the biological chisel but the technological chainsaw that is most quickly redefining what it means to be human. The devices we use change the way we live much faster than any contest among genes. We’re the block of wood, even if, as I wrote in January, sometimes we don’t even fully notice that we’re changing.
Assuming that we really are evolving as we wear or inhabit more technological prosthetics—like ever-smarter phones, helpful glasses, and brainy cars—here’s the big question: Will that type of evolution take us in desirable directions, as we usually assume biological evolution does?
Some, like the Wired founder Kevin Kelly, believe that the answer is a resounding “yes.” In his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelly writes: “Technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency; Increasing opportunity; Increasing emergence; Increasing complexity; Increasing diversity; Increasing specialization; Increasing ubiquity; Increasing freedom; Increasing mutualism; Increasing beauty; Increasing sentience; Increasing structure; Increasing evolvability.”
We can test the “Increasing” theory by taking a quick trip up north, to an isolated area south of the Hudson Bay. Here live the Oji-Cree, a people, numbering about thirty thousand, who inhabit a cold and desolate land roughly the size of Germany. For much of the twentieth century, the Oji-Cree lived at a technological level that can be described as relatively simple. As nomads, they lived in tents during the summer, and in cabins during the winter. Snowshoes, dog sleds, and canoes were the main modes of transportation, used to track and kill fish, rabbits, and moose for food. A doctor who worked with the Oji-Cree in the nineteen-forties has noted the absence of mental breakdowns or substance abuse within the population, observing that “the people lived a rugged, rigorous life with plenty of exercise.” The Oji-Cree invariably impressed foreigners with their vigor and strength. Another visitor, in the nineteen-fifties, wrote of their “ingenuity, courage, and self-sacrifice,” noting that, in the North, “only those prepared to face hardship and make sacrifices could survive.”
The Oji-Cree have been in contact with European settlers for centuries, but it was only in the nineteen-sixties, when trucks began making the trip north, that newer technologies like the internal combustion engine and electricity really began to reach the area. The Oji-Cree eagerly embraced these new tools. In our lingo, we might say that they went through a rapid evolution, advancing through hundreds of years of technology in just a few decades.
The good news is that, nowadays, the Oji-Cree no longer face the threat of winter starvation, which regularly killed people in earlier times. They can more easily import and store the food they need, and they enjoy pleasures like sweets and alcohol. Life has become more comfortable. The constant labor of canoeing or snowshoeing has been eliminated by outboard engines and snowmobiles. Television made it north in the nineteen-eighties, and it has proved enormously popular.
But, in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth. Diabetes, in particular, has become so common (affecting forty per cent of the population) that researchers think that many children, after exposure in the womb, are born with an increased predisposition to the disease. Childhood obesity is widespread, and ten-year-olds sometimes appear middle-aged. Recently, the Chief of a small Oji-Cree community estimated that half of his adult population was addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.
Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor. In previous times, the Oji-Cree lifestyle required daily workouts that rivalled those of a professional athlete. “In the early 20th century,” writes one researcher, “walking up to 100 km/day was not uncommon.” But those days are over, replaced by modern comforts. Despite the introduction of modern medicine, the health outcomes of the Oji-Cree have declined in ways that will not be easy to reverse. The Oji-Cree are literally being killed by technological advances.
The Oji-Cree are an unusual case. It can take a society time to adjust to new technologies, and the group has also suffered other traumas, like colonization and the destruction of cultural continuity. Nonetheless, the story offers an important warning for the human race. The problem with technological evolution is that it is under our control and, unfortunately, we don’t always make the best decisions.
This is also the principal difference between technological and biological evolution. Biological evolution is driven by survival of the fittest, as adaptive traits are those that make the survival and reproduction of a population more likely. It isn’t perfect, but at least, in a rough way, it favors organisms who are adapted to their environments.
Technological evolution has a different motive force. It is self-evolution, and it is therefore driven by what we want as opposed to what is adaptive. In a market economy, it is even more complex: for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for. As a species, we often aren’t much different from the Oji-Cree. Comfort-seeking missiles, we spend the most to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. When it comes to technologies, we mainly want to make things easy. Not to be bored. Oh, and maybe to look a bit younger.
Our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility. If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.
The sofalarity (pictured memorably in the film “Wall-E”) is not inevitable either. But the prospect of it makes clear that, as a species, we need mechanisms to keep humanity on track. The technology industry, which does so much to define us, has a duty to cater to our more complete selves rather than just our narrow interests. It has both the opportunity and the means to reach for something higher. And, as consumers, we should remember that our collective demands drive our destiny as a species, and define the posthuman condition.
Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School and the author of “The Master Switch.” This is Part II in a series on technological evolution. Part I was “If A Time Traveller Saw A Smartphone.”__
Illustration by Hannah K. Lee.