Technology has been on my mind in a big way lately. I’ve been noticing how much space it takes up, and I’ve started to cue in on how it affects my decision making. If you’ve read other posts of mine, you probably know I’m skeptical of a lot of the new technology we’ve created in the last ten years. This has coalesced into a theory (I’m probably not the first on this one…) I call “Peak Technology.”
Think Peak Oil, but with technology. Basically, that at some point technology will hit the top of the curve, and start to decline in either its usefulness (by making us perfectly happy) or will start to become actively bad (and maybe kill us all).
With Peak Oil, there is a finite quantity of oil on the planet. We don’t know how much oil there is, and in fact there may be more than anybody thinks. Even so, if we continue our oil consumption, at some point the Earth will run out of oil. It might be in 50 years, 500 years, or 5,000 years. A peak in supply occurs when difficulty in accessing new oil causes production to decline. Or, instead of peaking on supply, we might curb our use and peak on demand. If we switch to other fuel systems, oil production will decline. In combination, the fact that there will be a peak in oil production isn’t really the question. It’s just a matter of when.
With Peak Technology, there isn’t strictly “production,” “supply,” or “demand,” but a corollary can be drawn. I would argue that in some way, the purpose of technology is to make our lives better. I would also argue that there is a limit to how good our lives can be. It might not be anything any of us have ever gotten close to experiencing, but it is there. Let’s call it living in ecstasy every moment of existence. And perhaps that existence is nearly permanent. I don’t actually think our brains are capable of that kind of experience, but it seems like being fully enlightened and blissful for 1,000 years is at least a benchmark for how good life could be.
At some point, maybe in 50, 500, or 5,000 years (or 50,000,000, if we want to colonize the galaxy), technology could get us there. At which point, more technology won’t really be useful. Further advances would require nearly unlimited resources for increasingly incremental gains. Even if Moore’s law is true and processing power continues to double indefinitely, at some point it will so far surpass our own minds that we’ll either be overpowered or we won’t notice the difference.
These are rosy, although kind of weird, scenarios to think about. I’m sure the future will be stranger than any of us can predict. But these are theoretical “peaceful endpoints” for technology. There are a lot of other scenarios which are more troubling, and perhaps more likely.
For instance, technology may advance to the point where it surpasses our own understanding of how it works, and decides we aren’t worth keeping around (the “Technological Singularity Theory”). Or, it may become so powerful that a few rogue individuals could effectively wipe out humanity (perhaps one corporation spending $1B USD to spray aerosol into the upper atmosphere and trigger a massive ice age).
Or, as I’ve been thinking may be happening as we speak, technology may simply begin to make our lives worse, not better. Instead of bringing us toward that blissful existence (if that’s even what we’d want), it will trap and enslave us, make our brains victims to their own greatest anxieties. I believe social media is already having this effect — making us more depressed and less connected to other humans.
Now technology is controlling world politics. Here’s a great article my friends over at Scout, a new technology journal, wrote. Basically, big data, predictive analytics, fake news, and bots were used in a coordinated way to convince people to vote for Brexit and Trump. We’re being manipulated by people with more data than us, a better understanding of the internet than us, and a good grasp of psychology. Right now they’re tipping close elections, but I don’t see a limit on what this powerful, efficient, and person-specific propaganda could do. From the article, talking about “likes” on social media:
According to Zurich’s Das Magazine, which profiled Kosinski in late 2016, “with a mere ten ‘likes’ as input his model could appraise a person’s character better than an average coworker. With seventy, it could ‘know’ a subject better than a friend; with 150 likes, better than their parents. With 300 likes, Kosinski’s machine could predict a subject’s behavior better than their partner. With even more likes it could exceed what a person thinks they know about themselves.”
Perhaps this is just a dip in the curve. Maybe we’ll find our way out of technology addiction and manipulation, and truly embrace it for peaceful betterment. But whether it’s blissful world peace, massive destruction, or insidious propaganda and control, peak technology is real. The question is whether it is a far-off dream of science fiction, if it’s right around the corner, or if it already happened.