Monday, January 29, 2007

Virtual Morlocks

Until this morning I had not realized that there was a "Continental Automated Buildings Association" (CABA). According to CRM Buyer, they are "a nonprofit industry association that promotes advanced technologies for the automation of homes and buildings in North America." In other words they traffic in the sort of automation-based utopianism that we encounter among those trying to inject the Internet into every corner of our everyday life. This is the sort of vision that is their stock-in-trade:

In the not-so-distant future, the mundane will become borderline miraculous. The home washing machine will order its own repairs and the sprinkler system will call you on your cell phone to say the lawn service has broken one of its water spouts and it is now wasting water.

The car will tell you to pull over -- its left rear tire is low on air -- and, by the way, the service department at the local dealership has an opening on Thursday, if that's convenient for you. There seems to be a problem since your garage sensors have reported oil drippings on its floor.

Next, your home security system will ring you up and ask if it should let the repairman in to perform the service your washing machine ordered. The repairman's work order number matches the one the washing machine assigned, so the service call is legit, reports the security system. "Press one to allow entry with video surveillance, two to reschedule the repairman or three to summon the police," it might say.

Hopefully, this kind of writing will send at least a few of us back to H. G. Wells' Time Machine, or at least the summary that Wikipedia now provides. Recall that the protagonist of this novel discovers a future of two races, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The former are gentle and, at first blush, seem to indicate that the lost Garden of Eden has finally been recovered. The latter are coarse and cannibalistic but are also the only life forms that can maintain the machines that, in turn, maintain the Eloi's Edenic existence. Thus, as the Wikipedia article points out, this Garden of Eden is less of a paradise than one might initially take it to be:

The Utopian existence of the Eloi turns out to be deceptive. The Traveller soon discovers that the class structure of his own time has in fact persisted, and the human race has diverged into two branches. The wealthy, leisure classes appear to have devolutionised into the ineffectual, not very bright Eloi he has already seen; but the downtrodden working classes have evolved into the bestial Morlocks, cannibal hominids resembling albino apes, who toil underground maintaining the machinery that keep the Eloi – their flocks – docile and plentiful. Both species, having adapted to their routines, are of distinctly sub-human intelligence.

Writing not that long after Wells, Karl Mannheim observed that utopianism, just like blind ideology, provides a significant impediment to serious critical thinking. The problem is that, when we get too fixated on our favorite ideals, that fixation tends to our inhibit any thoughts of the consequences in which those ideals may be embedded. This is why Neustadt and May placed so much emphasis on the need to anticipate consequences when making critical decisions in a time of crisis. It is also why I have tried to apply there advise to the assessment of new technologies, bemoaning that fact that, as a rule, innovators tend to place more weight on "cool" than on "consequences."

So, do I really believe that CABA is promoting a technology of "virtual Morlocks" that will build up a customer base that will turn us into a world of mindless and ineffectual Eloi? I suppose the most telling indicator in the CRM Buyer is a comment from a Gartner analyst about market potential:

Sheer laziness and freedom from boring things are two of the biggest drivers.

In other words we have come to view the day-to-day activities of life as too boring to deserve attention; so we have become too lazy to summon the will to act on them. This is the point at which we have to invoke another important lesson from Neustadt and May: In a time of crisis, the first thing you have to do is ask, "How did we get into this mess?" How has life itself become so boring to us? As I suggested in exploring the concept of "secular Messianism," I see this as a consequence of the ways in which mass media have addicted up to believe in the deus ex machina, yet another example of how utopianism inhibits our critical thinking.

I read The Time Machine as a cautionary tale about what happens when a utopian vision actually gets implemented. The most important consequence is that the resulting sentient life-forms lose most, if not all, of the characteristics that, in our own vague way, we tend to associate with the concept of "humanity." As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in so many of his essays, the preservation of our underlying humanity is more important than whether or not we can realize our personal ideals through technology. Part of that humanity is that we do not all share the same ideals; and the last thing we want is for difference of opinion to turn into a conflict that technology resolves by turning us into "winners" and "losers." By stereotyping what those winners and losers might eventually become, Wells prepared us for Berlin's injunction that civil discourse about our differing values is more important (and more human) than trying to reduce the assessment of those values to "right" and "wrong."

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