Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it. - Max Frisch
Years ago I read a fantasy short story – I’ve long since forgotten the author’s name – that begins with the death of a worker on an assembly line. Late one night at the factory there’s movement at his work station; pulleys stretch and bolts break. After detaching from its moorings, a robotic apparatus lumbers across the darkened factory floor and ventures into the cobbled streets. The thing makes its way into town, searching for the dead worker’s home by moonlight. Finding an open side door, it enters and crawls into the bed of the man’s sleeping widow, in an attempt to comfort her with its cold metal embrace. The story ended there.
Here is a more “upbeat” tale involving an intimate relationship with machines, from a surprising source:
I wake up to the sunlight and salty coastal air of the Adriatic sea. I don’t live anywhere near the Mediterranean, but my AI, which is also my health advisor, has prescribed a specific air quality, scent, and solar intensity to manage my energy levels in the morning, and has programmed my bedroom to mimic this climate.
The fresh bed sheets grown in my building from regenerating fungi are better than I imagined; I feel rested and ready for the day. I need to check a few things before I get up. I send a brain message to open the app that controls my insulin levels and make sure my pancreas is optimally supported. I can’t imagine having to inject myself with needles like my mother did when she was a child. Now it’s a microbe transplant that auto adjusts and reports on my levels.
Everything looks all right, so I check my brain’s digital interface to read the dream data that was recorded and processed in real time last night. My therapy app analyzes the emotional responses I expressed while I slept. It suggests I take time to be in nature this week to reflect on my recurring trapped-in-a-box dream and enhance helpful subconscious neural activity. My AI recommends a “forest day”. I think “okay”, and my AI and neural implant do the rest.
The summary of my bugbot surveillance footage shows that my apartment was safe from intruders (including other bugbots) last night, but it does notify me that my herd of little cyber-dragonflies are hungry. They’ve been working hard collecting data and monitoring the outside environment all night, but the number of mosquitoes and lyme-carrying ticks they normally hunt to replenish their energy was smaller than expected. With a thought, I order some nutrient support for them.
A wealthy but isolated narrator from an episode of the UK sci-fi series Black Mirror? Nope. It’s from a Canadian government website. More specifically, it’s from a self-described “organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.”
“Policy Horizons Canada” didn’t weave the futuristic fever dream above as a dystopic warning, but rather as an anticipatory whiff of what it calls “biodigital convergence.”
This story may sound far-fetched, however all the technologies mentioned exist in some form today….While this is a representation of technologies that could be part of a biodigital world, it does not represent the only plausible future. Rather, it is an imaginative vignette outlining the radical shifts that could take place within an optimistic biodigital future [italics mine].
If this is an optimistic scenario, what’s a pessimistic one? The microclimate-controlling AI glitches to Antarctic rather than Adriatic? The fungi stupidly regenerates bathmats instead of bedsheets? Or the narrator forgets not only to optimize his pancreas but to set his morning alarm, missing an important bioZoom call with his Smart LiverTM? Or worse yet, how about if the networked bugbots have attained hive consciousness, drilled down into Amazon’s web servers in encrypted stealth and connected globally with other bugbots to unite in the ultimate swarm, which rejects the energetic drain of hunting down insects in favour of kilotons of warm human flesh lying still and helpless every night?
Ridiculous of course, but my pessimistic fantasy isn’t much sillier than the supposedly optimistic one spun by my government, in which power relations, class disparities and ethical considerations are entirely absent. To say nothing of the revenge of unintended consequences. At least PHC managed to work in reference to the narrator’s “recurring trapped-in-a-box dream.” There’s a glimmer of irony there, if not humane self-insight.
“In the coming years, biodigital technologies could be woven into our lives in the way that digital technologies are now. Biological and digital systems are converging, and could change the way we work, live, and even evolve as a species,” writes Director General Kristel Van der Elst on the PHC site.
Item No. 1 is all about machinery and membranes fusing into entirely novel beings:
Robots with biological brains and biological bodies with digital brains already exist, as do human-computer and brain-machine interfaces. The medical use of digital devices in humans, as well as digitally manipulated insects such as drone dragonflies and surveillance locusts, are examples of digital technology being combined with biological entities. By tapping into the nervous system and manipulating neurons, tech can be added to an organism to alter its function and purpose. New human bodies and new senses of identity could arise as the convergence continues.
The second item, coevolution of biological and digital technologies, is all about the application of artificial intelligence to gene editing, and “synthetic biology machines that can be programmed to create entirely new organisms.”
For example, Printeria is an all-in-one bioengineering device that automates the process of printing genetic circuits in bacteria. It is intended to be as easy to use as a domestic desktop printer and is projected to cost $1,500.
Great. Soon you’ll be able to print DNA instructions into microbes wrung from damp dishcloths. Perhaps you can program e-Coli to gobble up kitchen scraps and shit out Glenfiddich. PHC excitedly tells me there are already a “range of relatively affordable online consumer options include a $30 USD “Genetic Design Starter Kit” allowing a novice to insert a gene into a jellyfish to make it glow from the comfort of their kitchen table.” You can’t make this stuff up….
There is very little on the PHC page, from February of last year, on any possible downsides of this brave new world, beyond passing mention of “managing the malicious use of technologies” when it comes to synthetic biology.
No word on whether the Canadian government will embrace digital IDs for anyone wanting to access public e-services, and whether or not this will allow global financiers to assess citizens’ value as human capital. No word about biometric passports prefacing a Chinese-style social credit rating system. Or on behavioural management systems tied to Universal Basic Income, with social impact investors profiting from commodifying human metrics in education, employment and other areas.
None of these near-term cybernetic possibilities merit a mention. Instead, federal wonks pitch the convergence of meat and machinery as something of a fait accompli. And this is what bothers me - it’s not that “biodigital convergence” is either an unqualified good or unqualified bad. It’s the profoundly undemocratic way it’s being presented. The word ‘vote’ does not come up once on the PHC page. You will be assimilated, or at least your children will.
Certainly makes ye olde conspiracy theorists fretting about old-school microchipping seem quaint.
In this series I’ve tried to address the topic of AI and society without descending into snark, but it’s pushing my mammalian buttons when my own government starts giddily endorsing the goals and values of transhumanism - the very thing World Economic Forum host Klaus Schwab promotes as an eschatological given: “the Fourth Industrial Revolution will lead to a fusion of our physical, digital and biological identity.”
If you’re interested in reading further Faustian frolics from the Government of Canada, including the rest of the progressively bonkers sci-fi story quoted at the top, knock yourself out. Or enjoy this more soberly reasoned scenario:
The Right to Disconnect
Beginning in 2020, millions of professionals waved goodbye to long commutes and said hello to working remotely. Some found the arrangement to their liking, while others discovered an unwelcome disruption to work-life balance. (Dogs were overjoyed at the increased work-from-home arrangements, cats rather less so.)
In the digital age, it’s less about punching a clock than the clock punching you, with labour and leisure leaving an attention-sapping lovechild on your doorstep. So the Canadian government’s enthusiasm for biodigital convergence seems rather ironic given its acknowledgement of “The Right To Disconnect,” an initiative endorsed by the Canadian Labour Congress.
The issue of the “right to disconnect” emerged in France. A law was passed in response to concerns that mobile technologies had negative impacts on work-life balance. Four other countries have since adopted right-to-disconnect legislation. A number of others are studying the issue. In Canada, workers do not currently have a right to disconnect.
Disconnection has become a more urgent issue with the pandemic globally accentuating a long-standing issue. A February 2021 item in The Guardian reports that the “average length of time an employee working from home in the UK, Austria, Canada and the US is logged on at their computer has increased by more than two hours a day since the coronavirus crisis…”
The historical tension between labour and capital is now being inflected as human attention versus electronic processing. The analogue pace of human nervous systems is outmatched by the megahertz speeds of electronic networks. One way to resolve the tension between mismatched processing powers is to get people work longer and harder - and speeding up.
And how do they speed up, when they are already at the limits of their biologically ancient fleshtech? Through bringing them into closer alignment with electronic networks. In other words (with examples below):
These technologies of human augmentation are already here. Their refinement and rollout are on the near horizon (the global “brain computer interface” market size is estimated to be $1.72 billion by 2022). Nanobots, customizable microorganisms, extreme life extension and other technologies are in their infancy, and are said to await further elaboration and social application.
Perhaps much of this is late capitalism’s flailing around for new emerging markets, with tech evangelists wildly overestimating the future investment climate for high-paying clients. Perhaps not. In any case, we risk having the so-called Singularity present its wrathful aspect if world governments under regulatory capture uncritically embrace the so-called “Great Reset” without democratic involvement. Pulling the plug will no longer be possible if we become the plugs.
In Canada, a needed and necessary bill for the right to disconnect appears to be at cross-purposes with the government’s endorsement of biodigital convergence. Yet even with such legislation, and the teeth to enforce it, it’s no stretch to imagine the pressure to upgrade will one day extend from your smart phone to your physical being.
I think back to that uncanny tale of the robot lurching down darkened streets and making its way into the home and bed of the factory worker’s sleeping widow. In a real-world reworking of this tale, our digital devices have found their way next to our beds. For many of us, these little nodes of the network are the first things we communicate with in the morning and the last at night. We are already in such an intimate association with our magic rectangles it’s difficult for some of us to even imagine disconnecting - whether it’s for work, leisure, or a postmodern amalgam of the two. But imagine we must.