We are the Eloi of the Digital World

In H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1906), humanity has split into two races: the Eloi, a gently hippyish tribe who live a leisured life of play, and the Morlocks, a brutish underclass who supply all their needs. But the Eloi’s paradise is fake: the Morlocks live by consuming the Eloi. For much of the book the dirty secret of Eloian life is hidden while they gambol in the sun. In this scenario, the Eloi are no more than domestic animals who munch the turf under the sun, seemingly oblivious to the fate that awaits them.

Parallels come to mind as revelation after revelation spills out about that digital playground in which innocent consumers display their “Likes” on Facebook. When Facebook began I raged at the apparent inanity of getting everyone to “LIKE” other people’s utterances on social media. I didn’t deduce the cold logic behind both the puerility of “Liking” and the gushing encomiums of Mark Zuckerberg.

But to rule the world all you need is for everyone to tell you, over the years, in detail, WHAT THEY LIKE! You can now profile the whole population and sell them the things they only half know they want. This soon became apparent in the commercial sphere. Before his recent troubles Mark Zuckerberg was worth around $80 billion.

But then came the corruption-of-democracy scandal involving the exploitation of some tens of millions of these Likes to target susceptible individuals with grossly biased, misleading, and sometime plain false stories that fed and reinforced their prejudices and fears. Going back beyond Zuckerberg’s many pious sermons on bringing the world together, an earlier (2004) quote, from the time when he was hatching Facebook at Harvard, is apposite: “I have over 4,000 emails, SNS”. Interlocutor: “How’d you manage that one?” Zuckerberg: “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They “trust me”. Dumb fucks.”

This might just have been youthful bragging; he wasn’t to know the data treasure trove Facebook would became, with its 2.2 billion users today, but the mindset doesn’t seem to have changed much.

The twin prongs of the current assault on rule-based society are big data and the pseudo-populism of alt-right politics and they of course have formed a powerful liaison. I am indebted to John Harris for a 50-year-old quote from the work of Guy Debord: “Just when the mass of commodities slides toward puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity”. Debord was talking about commercial exploitation but Donald Trump has made of puerility a powerful political tool. Synergy between celebrity culture — which originally only needed old media, especially TV and tabloid newspapers, to develop — and social media has created puerility as a commodity on a scale which would have surprised even Debord. The more inane and puerile the content, the greater the virality.

But the strings of all this are being pulled by people who are not puerile at all but coldly calculating. Behind Trump’s grossly cartoonish display that won him the Presidency was the remote figure of Robert Mercer, a rightwing billionaire who has made his money from big data and intends to use it to make sure that he and his rich friends can make much more of it with no interference from the wrong kind of government — ie one that would meddle and limit the power of moguls such as himself.

The new tools of power — promoted as aids to a utopian future but actually a means of control more draconian than any old-time religion or totalitarian state– all emanate from California. Zuckerberg’s “everybody sharing everything” shtick; Google’s driverless cars; Elon Musk’s colony on Mars; various people’s transhumanity2.0. Although the roots of Californian IT had strong connections with 60s hippiedom, its current direction seemed more Morlockian that hippysih.

I love California but my adoration stops short of the full-blown Californian craziness currently running rife among the technorati of Silicon Valley. The essence of SV utopianism is to recognise no boundaries.”Why should we age and die? Let’s live for ever.” “Why are we stuck on this little rock? Let’s move to Mars.” “Why do we have to do all this degrading stuff — shopping, cleaning, paying bills, booking shows, keeping up the house? Let’s lie in bed and tell Alexa to do it.”

The flaws in all these, in case you haven’t noticed, are driven home in the most metaphorical way in David Eagleman’s book of short stories on the Afterlife, Sum. Eagleman updates Swift’s sojourn with the Immortals (Struldbruggs) in Gulliver’s Travels in which he demonstrates the evils of living forever. Swift merely details the ailments and the sorrows of lives without savour but Eagleman projects 40 notional kinds of eternity — all very different to mere old age. One of the most nightmarish is one in which we do all the sorts of things we do here: brush our teeth, take the dog for a walk, have sex, but a lifetime’s ration of each activity can only take place exclusively and consecutively. So we shouldn’t want to live forever; we shouldn’t want to outsource the human maintenance tasks that punctuate our average day to an IT servant.

The greatest scientific advances of the last 50 years are not those that have developed the overweening Californian mega-projects but the historical sciences that are showing us how life evolved on earth by genetic improvisations. In the case of human beings we are pretty clearly an accident: an animal that escaped the rigidity of all the others. Just as our computers are general purpose machines unlike the electronic calculator, we can do almost anything and we keep making it up as we go along. There is no essence, only an endless exploration.

There doesn’t seem to be any limit, either to what we can make up or to the natural world’s potential for human exploitation. But if we become too narrow in our explorations, making all depend on one thing, we are lost. If driverless cars became the norm, human-driven cars would have to be banned except in theme parks like the heritage steam railways. More seriously, if a successful colony on Mars were to be established it would create a new schism greater than any religious, racial or national enmity. A successful colony on Mars would make an Earth-Mars war eventually inevitable. The richness of resources on earth is all we could possible need. The only worm in the bud of life on earth is human beings; transporting them to Mars would only inoculate the planet with the old virus.

Over most of human history the pace of our innovations has been slow enough to allow adjustment and, in the end, a more or less rational approach to the new possibilities. But since the early 20th century innovations have come so thick and fast that, instead of a steady adjustment, a hubristic delirium has set in; possibilities are seen as necessities; any limits to possibility are ruled out.

So life is only valuable so long as we can maintain its variety: humdrum task have to share the calendar with the 2012 Olympics or the Megan-Harry wedding or whatever it is floats your boat. Your perfect day is only perfect because it stands out from the others. And there is pleasure in ordinariness. There might be forces propelling us towards an Eloi/Morlock schism but we should face them down.

Bu it’s late in the day. The momentum is with the modern Morlocks of Silicon Valley. We were softened up by the bounty the internet provided. We didn’t notice or we did and didn’t care. “Surf, share and be merry for tomorrow we’ll all be Trumped”. We are becoming the Eloi.



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Peter Forbes

I write about biomimicry and nanoscience in books and review science books for the Guardian and Independent. Teach Narrative Non-fiction at City University.