What happens when the computers disappear?
The computer has become a primary dependency of civilization without being nearly as enmeshed in daily life as it will be.
What happens when the computers disappear? Not, of course, when there are no more computers, but when they are so ubiquitous and omnipresent that we can no longer see them or distinguish them from other objects in our day to day lives.
We are in the preliminary stage now. Visible computers need not be truly everywhere and in use all the time to feel as if they are. A smartphone, tablet, laptop, or traditional desktop computer — as well as most wearables — still primarily rely upon being seen and touched. The (hoped-for) next wave of computing is even more presumptuous about your physical attention — the big players in VR think you’ll be happy to strap a hot screen mask on your face for a substantial portion of your day. This will be very short-lived.
But the more interesting question is what happens after?
Parallel computing made enormous leaps in the last decade and a half. You can now actually talk to your computer and it sometimes works. One of the most significant impacts of the current “AI” race is going to be a Cambrian explosion of input data that will push voice control into much more sophisticated territory. That is the more meaningful Step One toward disappearing computers. If you don’t have to see it to use it, it can be anywhere. People will likely be happy about this and accept the privacy invasions that come with it because they are already sick of holding things.
Step Two will come when enough people are convinced that a computer inside the body is something they cannot afford to do without. Various benefits and social momentum will likely make this a small civilizational schism. It will happen, though. Perhaps even in our lifetimes.
And then what?
Twenty years ago Omar Naim, writer and director of The Final Cut, said that we’d have much more immersive funerals. An oddly specific outcome, but quite a potent choice that exposed the weirdest things about human beings.
Black Mirror said that the nightly pastime for the anxious will become a persistent experience with toxic levels of fidelity.
It’s difficult to fully comprehend how a world of self-identifying cyborgs would look or feel.
Cyborg is a Metaphysical Identity, Not a Technological One
It’s interesting how one of the most compelling ideas about what happens when computers and biology merge is ultimately a psychological, emotional — if not spiritual — one, rather than simply a physical one. It makes good sense, of course. The question of identity has always been metaphysical, so much more so then when who we are and what we make becomes an intentional feedback loop at the cellular level. That’s what science fiction stories about cyborgs tend to ponder. It’s simply more important to us to wonder what we will become when we eat technology rather than what is a house that is also a computer.
But will it be the physical fusion of human and computer that makes us a race of cyborgs, or have we always been hybrids of biology and technology? It seems that the more specificity you strive for in your definition of “cyborg,” the more it already applies. Donna Haraway wrote as much in A Cyborg Manifesto” in 1985.
Neil Harbisson, an artist with an external antenna directly connected to his brain, is the first human to be legally recognized as a cyborg. But Haraway would say that the first cyborg lived thousands of years earlier — the first human to make a tool, to wear clothing, to build a house. When technology makes a way for life, the living is technological.
Perhaps there is no such thing as a “natural” human, or, in other words, a human that is not a cyborg.
Nevertheless, putting technology inside the body — for reasons other than replacing a joint, a bone, or a faulty organ — will be meaningfully different than living under it, sitting on it, wearing it, or holding it.
Post-Humanity is Another Kind of Cyborg
Even before Haraway, in a paper written in 1960 called Drugs, Space and Cybernetics, the idea of the cyborg was positioned as a necessary evolution of the human being. Its authors speculated that human biology would need to adapt — or, be adapted — for long-term space travel. Their primary idea was that the best approach to being in space was being of space. Creating synthesized human-friendly environments in space is unsustainable and risky; why not change us instead.
What strikes me now, some sixty-three years later, is that the argument works as well right here on the surface of Earth. We may have already irreparably changed the ecosystem that was once natural to us. Our ability to continue to thrive here might require intervention. The question again is, do we change the environment or do we change us? The latter, believe it or not, might end up being easier to do. However, like our current approach to healthcare, I wonder if this will amount to a managed-care situation — using technology to keep us from rejecting our own air and soil the way we use immunosuppressants to keep us alive in present situations. It already seems the case that we are increasingly allergic to living here.
This kind of cyborg is a fork in “natural” biology. One where the genes change because we went in there and messed with the code. If Homo sapiens — wise man — differentiates us from our supposedly intellectually inferior forebears, post-humanity may go by another name. Homo Faber, perhaps. Homo Hubris if it doesn’t go well.
Computers are More Fragile than Nature
Another perspective on this question bothers me. There are technologies — much older ones — that provide a tangible structure for an enduring culture. Turning plants and minerals into food, fuel, fabric, and foundation, for instance. That is technology, too. But unlike a computer, the software to a tree’s hardware is biological and self-sustaining. If I cut a tree down, another can grow. If I transform that tree into paper or a house, both will last longer than I will.
Computers have a much shorter lifespan. Either their physical integrity can only take so much heat, or their software stops working for a million external reasons. A wooden house would hardly last three years, either, if we had to log in and repair its cells or maintain the API between its surface and the air. Civilization has been built upon self-sufficient technological material. What happens when more and more of its future is determined by things that are exponentially more complex and fragile?
So again, what happens when the computers disappear?
Our Minds, Free from Our Eyes
In science fiction, the generation ship is a trope often used to expose the recursive nature of technology and identity. The idea that a civilization could send colonizers into space in a vessel capable of sustaining them for generations only to have the later, surviving generations forget who they are, where they came from, or even the nature of the reality around them is a tragedy, but it’s also the exact same story as human history on this globe.
Thinking -> Making -> Living is a perpetual feedback loop. There is no technology without the thought that precedes it, and living with technology changes how we think.
A world of ambient computing is one that will be defined even more by that feedback loop. Likely in ways we wouldn’t prefer from this side of history, but also perhaps in ways that we long for now. How much of how we think about the world and how we experience it is defined now by images on a screen?
What if we could say the same thing of some other experience? What if we could free our minds from the limits of our eyes?
There are countless aspects of this question that I have not addressed. The energy consumption of a world of invisible computers — it will be a lot! The blurring of corporate and sovereign power in a world where computing is everywhere — it is already messy! Life extension. Identity politics. Work. Income inequality. I could go on and on, but I didn’t here, kind of on purpose.