Some scientists are pretty sure that we are living in a simulation. Blue whales, the Taj Mahal, that extra Christmas cookie you snuck from the office kitchen – oh, and us, of course – we’re all nothing more than little crafted zaps of electricity. Or whatever happens to be powering this virtual funhouse.
Explorations of such notions can be pretty cool. (See: The Matrix). And a simulation would conveniently negate all manner of philosophical and ethical quandaries about life and society.
But… enh, not really my thing.
Biology has always attracted me more than physics. I like the world squishy and dirty and mysterious and a bit out of control.
What I find particularly fascinating are the parallels between the natural world’s processes and ecosystems, and the ones we’ve built (the Anthropocene). How the ways we interact in and among those systems still mirrors how natural ecosystems function. And how our own progress has sped up and magnified these similarities.
Things we build bear our fingerprints and biases, after all, no matter how shiny and advanced they are. And we are indisputably organic. Sorry, Francis Bacon and co., we are not masters of nature. (Though I’m not sure we’ll learn that lesson before we make ourselves extinct.)
Keeping all that in mind, the recent fourth Waterloo Symposium on Technology and Society sent me down a rabbit hole of these ideas. There was a comment in the opening remarks about gene editing speeding up what evolution takes its time doing. Then the keynote was more or less a manifesto against the tech infrastructure we’ve built that has become “social” and “connecting” in name only.
We’ve built the biggest and most powerful tech we’ve ever seen, and it’s made us a bit arrogant and forgetful of our messy, squishy natures, to the point where we’ve lost control of our creations.
Basically, we’ve gotten to the point where “social” platforms are shaping us – how we think, what we say, what we believe, how we interact or work with others – rather than the other way around, as originally intended.
I agree, but I don’t think the story ends there. We’ve certainly created a monster that few fully understand, and that those in charge aren’t doing much good at controlling (whatever “control” means here).
But like with everything else, in building and developing these systems, we’ve left fingerprints, bits of ourselves. They’re not sterile. Plus, ecosystems never work just in one direction, so while social platforms are shaping us, it’s not like we can’t do anything about it if they become harmful.
Which got me thinking about CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), the gene-editing “tool” that could help us cure diseases, strengthen crops… or accidentally wipe ourselves out. We’re kinda using nature to tweak nature, just more speedily than “normal.”
Like the rapid development of software and social platforms, CRISPR can be procured by those with sufficient resources or investment (which is modest). It can be employed by people with only a modicum of expertise. But it doesn’t require professional accreditation. The uses of it or experimental results aren’t really controlled, at least not yet.
For all of CRISPR’s amazing potential to help us, there’ve also been some pretty notable failures, experiments that really didn’t turn out as expected, and the dawning understanding that many of the things we’re messing with are way more complex and interconnected than we’ve even begun to imagine, let alone understand.
Rather like the development of social platforms…
Because we’re trying to harness evolution, and evolution is change. It’s messy. It’s not a single straight line. It’s amoral; it has no helpful or harmful motivation. Speeding it up just makes that more obvious more quickly.
Some changes, aka mutations, make an organism super competitive in its environment, and others wipe out an organism in a few generations.
Okay, so what does any of that have to do with a symposium on technology and society? Remember how I mentioned the cool parallels between the Anthropocene and the natural world? Well, I think we – humans – are basically CRISPR. Or can be.
As noted, we have these massive social platforms. Like, bigger than anything we have really created before. I don’t think that two billion of us ever all signed up for and contributed to something and created such a massive and influential web of connections before in our history.
Nature, of course, does it all the time, but we have a lot to learn before Facebook is half as smart and symbiotically useful as a single patch of mycelium.
How our uses of social platforms develop and change is messy and all over the place. Just look at everything that’s happened in the last decade.
But we have noticed when harm is being done in the ecosystem. And to address that harm, not everyone is content to just wait for negative mutations to die out (or for metaphorical winter or wildfire to reboot the ecosystem).
I think we’ve found CRISPR-like ways – limited, inconsistent, and unpredictable as they are – to do some editing on society and business via these platforms.
When something bad and outrageous enough draws our attention these days, we’re more and more likely to shift into gear to snip out the harm – using the platforms themselves to do it – rather than waiting for “natural” processes to deal with it.
For example, an online public backlash (largely on Twitter) to an exposé published by The Verge, recently influenced the recent resignation of Away luggage CEO Steph Korey.
YouTube is also changing its policies to ban maliciously insulting videos, in good part as a result of backlash from users over relentless and long-term racist and homophobic abuse of journalist Carlos Maza by YouTuber and “comedian” Steven Crowder.
Now, sure, two examples isn’t “science.” But they’re not completely isolated incidents, either.
Sure, as we’ve learned even in the #MeToo era, there are plenty of horribly behaving CEOs who haven’t seen squat in the way of consequences for their actions. And there are millions of instances of hate and harassment on social platforms all day, every day, that do not influence policies. (Hell, YouTube didn’t even apologize to Maza…)
Aaaand, not forgetting the unpredictability of CRISPR, there’s cancel culture.
However, like CRISPR, our innovative potential is still boundless. The sky’s the limit for success, failure and everything in between. We will rush in, foolishly or otherwise, toward things we get worked up about, whether or not we have a plan or control over the eventual consequences.
But it is to our credit that we’re getting less patient just accepting broad social harms and rather brilliantly using the same tools that can perpetuate that harm to expose and excise it.
Bigger and more complicated issues than we’ve ever had before, moving faster than we’ve ever changed, and so we tackle them with nature’s messy, squishy cleverness.
I can almost hear David Attenborough narrating it now...
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached at @melle or email@example.com.