My new TV addiction is "The Sarah Connor Chronicles", which brings the Terminator franchise to the small screen. There's nothing like watching robots kick ass to make me think about the big issues in life, and this week's man-versus-machine showdown got me thinking about our widely-noted anxiety about the possibility of robot or cyborg takeover.
From Blade Runner to the Matrix, from Star Trek's Borg to Battlestar Galactica's Cylons, we've spent a lot of time imagining the day when our super-strong, super-smart robots get tired of vacuuming and decide they want to rule the world. You can even buy a witty and informative manual on How To Survive a Robot Uprising.
As a sci-fi fan and insomniac I've spent more than my share of hours staring at the ceiling and wondering whether our house is about to be stormed by robots who've made their escape from the Honda assembly line. That's given me an opportunity to consider a more immediate threat: Facebook. Not just Facebook, actually, but all the social networks and online communities to which we give our eyeballs, braincells, hearts and dollars. Could these online communities constitute the machine threat that sci-fi has taught us to anticipate?
Here's what we know about the prospect of machine takeover:
The machines share a common intelligence. Thanks to networking, the machines are all connected together. Networked, machine intelligence is way more powerful than solo, human intelligence, which is why the machines crush us like bugs (at least at first). Similarly, an online community links users (and their computers) in a giant network that agglomerates the knowledge, passions, and creative assets of its members. A single social network is a collective entity that is far smarter, better informed, and more interesting to talk to at a dinner party than any one of its members.
The machines evolve. In any scary robot movie, the shit hits the fan once your nice, domesticated robot develops the ability to build a nuclear missile or graft human tissue onto its exoskeleton. You want to keep a very careful eye on any machine that develops intelligence or skills that weren't specifically and deliberately engineered by its human creator. So please worry about social networks like Flickr (originally a set of tools for a multiplayer online game, turned into a photo-sharing community) or communities like Second Life (started as a demo, turned into a world). We may initiate our networks, but we're kidding ourselves if we think they remain under our control.
The machines figure out how to build new machines. Machines cease to be dependent on — or beholden to — human beings once they learn how to build more of themselves. That's why you've got to worry about networks like Ning, which are deliberately set up to spawn new networks. Talk about letting the genie out of the bottle. Before you engineer your network for a path of relentless, viral growth, get to know its social dynamics and trajectory, so you have some sense of the trajectory you're initiating.
The machines need a body. Aha! you're thinking. The robots need some sort of physical presence before they take over — ideally something that goes beyond a computer-controlled jet or tank. Opposable thumbs are as helpful to robots as to humans. Well, Facebook has 128 million opposable thumbs: every Facebook user is a real-world avatar for the network. Don't believe me? Almost 100,000 Facebook users signed up for a worldwide water fight last July 14th — that's right, the network already has us armed and turning on one another.
The robots always kill their creator first. That's bad news for Mark Zuckerberg, and for all the rest of us who spend our days and nights in the laboratory, coaxing our communities to life. Sure, a community may stagger around the room, thrusting out its arms and legs in a vaguely dynamic way, but you know it's ALIVE when it turns around and plunges a dagger through your heart. Anyone who's launched an online community, only to have the members completely reinvent the community's mission, user agreement and/or code, knows what I'm talking about.
Robots reflect and amplify the worst traits and behaviors of their human creators. Robots can do all the stuff we do: perpetrate mass slaughter (Matrix, Terminator, the Day the Earth Stood Still), take away our ability to make independent decisions (2001), exploit human energy/labor (Matrix), destroy the natural environment (Matrix, Terminator), and appropriate other species' cultural, biological and physical assets (the Borg). Likewise, the virtual being constituted by a social network can amplify the worst traits within the network: social networks have perpetrated mass frauds (hello, lonelygirl15!), turned peaceful coexisters into rotten neighbors, reduced people to whether they are hot or not, and — in an especially horrific case — even bullied at least one teen to her death.
Your Facebook profile page may not look a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it bears more than a metaphorical resemblance to the intelligent machines of our nightmares. Each half-machine (servers and software), half-human (coders and users) network you belong to is a collective intelligence. It may not be embodied (or rather, its embodiment may be distributed — across all its users — rather than unitary) but it is a new kind of being, a new kind of intelligence, that could have a crucial impact on the future of humanity.
You can understand that impact simply in terms of each network's social, psychological, and perhaps also economic and/or political footprint. A network can fan the flames of material aspiration by encouraging people to think about what's next on their shopping list. It can reduce human connection to the next hookup. It can reduce professional collegiality to notches on a virtual bedpost. Or a network can focus members and observers on how to change everything.
But network participation doesn't just affect us: it constitutes us. When we become part of the network's collective intelligence, the network becomes us — and we become the network. The network consciousness is (to a greater or lesser extent, in proportion to our participation) our own consciousness.
If our network aims at professional schmoozing, we're schmoozers: as genuine as our last message was forthright, as opportunistic as our last inquiry was grasping. If our network interactions play at zombies and vampires, we're zombies and vampires: undead, sapping energy from our more vital and dynamic selves. If our network focuses on change, it is change; and the consciousness of each member becomes change (and a force for change) too.
That's why it's time for you — for all of us — to join the resistance. Our social networks can be the malevolent, murderous creatures of dystopic science fiction. They can form collective consciousnesses that reflect, amplify and encourage materialism, exploitation and cruelty. We can give birth to these half-human, half-machine beings, and be remembered as the generation of foolish scientists who let the experiment escape from the lab.
Or we can constitute another creature entirely. Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and the Terminator franchise all feature cybernetic creations who turn against their wicked siblings and instead join with humans for their salvation. Our social networks may have millions of users, but even in machine time, they are still in their infancy. Their first steps may be shaky, but there's still plenty of time for us to steer them on a path towards constructive engagement; towards claiming the best of their human legacy, and amplifying it with the power of machine intelligence.
The collective consciousness of your social network constitutes some part of your own consciousness…but you help constitute its consciousness, too. Your contribution — your words, your photos, your choice of connections, even your choice of which networks to engage in — determine the character of each of your network babies. Resistance is far from futile: resistance to materialism, exploitation and cruelty are the very qualities that we can model, embody and endow. A networked Terminator that reflects these qualities of resistance: now that's a cyborg I'd like to help build.