Selfie is an ugly word that conveys what we’ve let ourselves become. At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the President of the United States is taking a selfie with the Prime Minister of Denmark. Smiling, self-absorbed faces removed from the place, time and mood of the funeral for a great man.
Remember that moment. A funeral. Technology seducing our sorrow. The seduction is just beginning. This is an essay on where it is leading us.
In Thailand, the political turmoil, the time of great discontent and violent, hateful speech demonstrators in the street also took pictures of themselves. We are on display for ourselves, in love with these selves, and can’t wait to share ourselves through vast digital networks.
Selfies are our gateway out of paying attention to those around us. Once we no longer pay attention, finely tuned attention to the details of those around us, we retreat further into our own world. Technology has found our sweet spot of narcissism and imprisoned us with our own smiling faces.
We are in the midst of a grand succession. We are the first intelligent species to engineer our own replacement as the most intelligent life form. AI (Artificial Intelligence), stimulations, emulations, or machine intelligence—the name of our successor isn’t settled. But it will be. And it won’t be taking selfies of itself. We are close to inventing a technology that will ultimately render its own intelligence an obsolete, low grade system constricted by inferior, slow, unpredictable and biased filters, and degraded search, storage, access and low level information capture and conversion. We won’t understand what means. But we’ll get the hint we’ve fallen behind. Once that succession takes place, we will find ourselves in a race we can’t and won’t win. We are harnessing the tools of evolution and building new technology at the same time. This evolution is accelerating at a rate that Darwin couldn’t have predicted. It’s only a matter of time before this process blows past us like the Roadrunner.
We aren’t there. Yet.
We are in transition. That selfie by President Obama may be the defining moment years from now, as others look back and wonder what happened to us on the way to our second-class status. We were so worried about our status, our power, our wealth that we forgot that we were one species that had so much in common. That our differences, as great as we perceived them, were minor compared with our position in a world where a form of intelligence slipped out of our control.
The evidence for this transition is everywhere. But we are too blind to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The advances in robotics, the algorithms, advances in nanotech, and physics are reported as small, isolated steps within a particular domain. One day these domains will merge. At that point, whatever grievances we have with one another will pale in comparison with an intelligence that dwarfs our ability to understand and comprehend.
How will we know when that day comes? We will have advance warning: we will have long since stopped paying attention to each other in the analog world of the restaurant, living room, subway, or the street. Our attention will be focused on our place, our face, traveling inside the digital world, linking into that network on its way through an intelligent universe. We hitch a ride and find that journey is the only one that provides pleasure. Our endorphins rush through our bodies as we plug into the grid. Like a flea on a dog we will we will one day owe our very existence to another species. This is how it starts. The most powerful man in the world snapped a selfie at the funeral of a great man who endured years of imprisonment to achieve an ideal for his country. Think for an undistracted quality one minute what that means for you.
When Nelson Mandela died, an age, a feeling, an attitude and a way of living died with him. Had he lived in a world of selfies would he have had those admired human qualities that allowed him to rise above his sacrifice? Look around at our world with Mandela no longer amongst us, and ask yourself, and see the trend line. Selfies define the stage we occupy. We are cut off from our surroundings, from the past, from the greats who brought diagrams of our lives fit together as families, neighbors, friends, and strangers. And how we struggled to understand their body language, gestures, and words, and attribute meaning. Our lost art is paying attention to people in our presence. We filter them out. We erase them from our days and nights as we go for our digital fix.
We are addicts of the worst kind. Machine intelligence will know best how to feed that addiction. Look around you. How hard would be? Not very. And like all junkies we will do whatever it takes to hear that magically ‘bing’ noise as someone, somewhere, ‘likes’ our selfie.
And what does that mean for you and for me, or our children and grandchildren?
After the great succession takes place, it means their future will no longer be in your hands. They will likely have enhanced intelligence and have infinitely greater resources at their disposal. We will be small part of their overall digital relationships, and like an icon they would send a message as and when needed. But we will no longer control the encryption keys. It is open to question whether our signal will be lost in the noise of the system. That will also be a transition period of short duration. The future won’t be in our hands or our children’s.
Look at the way we have treated each other. Look at the way we’ve treated other species. How can we expect a super-intelligent entity to treat us any differently than the top 1% treated the bottom 99%. The elites will have the toughest time adjusting to joining the species and in a place as they never assumed was possible—a world without them at the top of the food chain. We will spend more and more time in the cloud chasing after selfies, those butterfly like moments, forgetting the fields of flowers have changed hands.
The selfie is our new expression of ‘self’ and in our mirror we find ourselves bewitched by this most seductive of all illusions—the reality of self, its unity, coherence, and permanence.
Others have written similar pieces. You will find them nailed them on digital lampposts . In fifty years, what appears here, and lodged in a few other places, will be evidence that we had an inkling of what was coming. But we largely ignored the warning signal framed in the famous presidential selfie. That image will be defining moment when we celebrated rather than questioned our central vulnerability. Once we no longer define our identity through our relationship with others but through our own mirror, we will hardly notice AI will upgrade that mirror until we disappear inside it. By then we will have forgotten how empathy was at the heart of what we once were, and what was required to claw back this principle that defined our humanity. Not that long ago, it was normal to pay attention to those around us. Empathy worked best face-to-face and once it is gone, no intervention of a technological will bring it back. In the end we will have surrendered our humanity as the last selfie is posted in the cloud.