Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chapter Seven: The Fourth Wave

Chapter 7: The Fourth Wave

Hope walks into a bar looking for change.

Bartender says, “Change? I’ll give you change!”

From the shelf, he pulls red bottles, blue bottles, white bottles.

He begins to juggle, light gleaming from the circular rotation.

Hope holds out her hand.

Bartender says: “We’ve got a new nation, change, the American dream.”

Hope says, “I’ll have some of that change, please.”

Bartender says, “We’ve got silver change, we’ve got gold change, we’ve got copper pennies. We’ve got all the change you need.”

Hope repeats, “I’ll have some change, please.”

The bartender makes no move for the register, but continues juggling, juggling with a hypnotic sway.

Hope looks at her empty hand, pulls it back, and turns to walk away.



“We’re on a road to nowhere. Come on inside.” -Talking Heads

Somewhere between New Mexico and New Orleans, the news media becomes obsolete, like 8 tracks and bell bottoms, a figment of our collective memory.

Michael Jackson is dead or so Twitter buzzes as I check email from my friend Caroline’s couch in New Orleans. Wolf Blitzer, for his part, seems oblivious; a full twenty minutes pass before he confirms that the King of Pop has indeed died. In that short time, everyone in the United States, 300 million people, learn of his death via email, Facebook, Twitter, and text message. News travels faster than epidemic and the net travels faster than the news.

Caroline’s roommate comes home from work, a flurry of energy and shuffling through the front door. His first words echo to the living room: “Did you hear?”

He enters the room and the TV draws him in with me: “Oh, you’re watching it.”

TJ sits down on the couch, media adoration and speculation filling the air.

“Can you believe Twitter announced twenty minutes ahead of the news?” I ask.

“Twitter doesn’t have to put together a photo montage,” he snarls.

“Or verify,” I add.

While we sit on the couch engaged in celebrity adulation, Iranian democracy seekers post images and videos of protest against election fraud. An international coalition of sympathizers virtually rally behind the protesters. Twitter becomes the 140-character voice of a revolution.

The media goes back and forth on Twitter, pundits downplaying its importance, reinforcing the role of traditional media. A fellow with the Open Society Institute, Evgeny Morozov claims that Twitter is nothing new: “Technology has traditionally played a very important role in facilitating protest; remember that the early anti-communist protests in Poland were facilitated with the help of the Xerox machines!

Nonetheless, the printing press was invented in 1454 and the xerox machine didn’t appear until 450 years later. Twitter, on the other hand, came along a mere fifteen years after the internet became available to the general public, an exponential increase in technical capacity.

My mind struggles around acceleration as my tires whir beneath me. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed the velocity were I at home where the world spins imperceptibly, change reigned in by routine. On the road, everything is new. Counting down miles between cities to keep from falling asleep, my mind wanders through the changing landscape, stumbles, gets back up and says,

“Where are we going?”

1) Away from traditional media, and

2) Away from traditional navigation techniques.

The iPhone’s Google GPS system makes travel easier than it has ever been. I simply follow the blue dot to the red dot...and voila, Roswell and New Orleans become navigable sans probleme.

“What did people do before iPhones?” I ask Caroline as we weave our way into New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

“They got lost--ALOT,” she replies.

Funny thing is, the iPhone has only existed for a few years, yet I can’t seem to remember life without it, a fact predicted by many in the industry. Futurist inventor Raymond Kurzweil opens his talks by holding his iPhone high into the air and saying: “Today, it’s in your hand. Tomorrow it will be in your head.” It was Kurzweil who inspired Bill Joy, a computer scientist who helped author the UNIX system, to write “Why the Future doesn’t Need Us.” In the now-famous essay, Joy explores his grave concerns that breakthroughs in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics could lead to human extinction. By allowing ourselves to become dependent on machines, we risk allowing them to surpass our intelligence: “The human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines decisions.”

And, it all started with the iPhone.

Then came the Wii.

In an impeccable, newly-built apartment in Houston’s sprawling suburbia, Cindy and I prepare for a workout after a long day of work (her) and driving (me). At first, I’m skeptical that this will be a “real” workout, but, a few minutes later, sweat flows freely and Cindy begins heckling the screen.

“If I have to do one more crunch, I’m going to kill her.”

“Again? Come on!”

For all the personal trainer’s great moves, she can’t cut through the algorithmic haze. Both her compliments and her chastisements are equally formulaic.

“I can see you are working hard! Good job!”

“It’s been three days since your last workout. Remember, if you want to reach your fitness goals, you must workout regularly.”

Thank you, Princess Wii.

After our workout, Cindy and I plop down on the newly-laid carpet to chat. I confess a recent curiosity in gender, a feeling of ambiguity, in-betweenness, a late night documentary on the LOGO station.

Cindy gets it: “Once I passed a huge semi tire in the middle of the highway, so I pulled over and headed out to clear it off. Some old guy had also pulled off and when he saw me, he called out: ‘I was going to get it, but I’ll let a young guy like you take care of it!’”

Well into her 40s, Cindy remains boyish, wholesome goodness, a pragmatist that balanced my 20-something craziness on many a Indiana night. Through pictures on Cindy’s wall and refrigerator, a story comes together that was always hazy to me: my cousin was the love of her life before she passed away at 27. What I try not to think about faces me from all directions, and I think maybe I am here to remember- but life is a forward motion necessitating forgetfulness.

In short, I avoid the topic: “Houston is a monster!”

Cindy laughs in agreement, “That’s the right word for it!”

It goes on forever, a beast of steal and stone, toll booths, carbon monoxide, aluminum souls.

“Our car culture is on the way down,” I say, a comment that leads us straight into the rabbit hole conversation centerpiece of 2009: the economy.

Cindy’s sober demeanor gives the impression of certainty: “I think we’ve reached the point in history where parents will no longer see their children do better than them.”

“Yeah, the dot com boom saved us for a while, but now there’s nothing left to sustain the economy.”

I mention an article that gave a concise reason for our current economic turmoil: we’ve created money faster than historically sustainable and we are running out of exploitable resources to create more money.

She fires back with her own literature: “Have you ever read The Third Wave?”

“No, what is it?”

“A book I read back in college, so that tells you how long ago it came out!”

Summarizing Toffler’s three waves, she explains that the first wave was agricultural, a time when human beings settled down and shifted from hunter-gatherer societies. Later, the Industrial era allowed for “mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass media, mass recreation, mass entertainment, and weapons of mass destruction.” Finally, the post-industrial age, or the information age, started our current era of Internet connectivity.

After Cindy’s history lesson, I’m left with an obvious question: “So, what’s next?”

“I don’t know- he needs to write another chapter: the fourth wave!”

“Really...What do you think could come next?”

“The energy age,” Cindy says. “Clean alternative energies.”

Driving from Houston to New Orleans, I ponder that possibility and even feel reassured by it, but my reassurance soon fades away. Though I’d often felt that traveling the country on biofuel was living into the future, I’d never thought of it as a fourth wave that would revolutionize life on earth. Clean energy is a necessity, not a revolution. So, the conundrum remained: What could possibly be the forth wave?

Like an answer to a question I’d barely had time to ask, ALICE came into my life.


She may have a name that whispers of the wind, but ALICE (Artificial Linguistic Intelligence Computer Entity) is actually just an online chat mechanism. Using surprisingly simple HTML code, developer Dr. Richard S. Wallace created her with an artificial intelligence capable of keeping up with human conversation (Actually, she can simultaneously chat with 100,000 people, which is arguably more than “keeping up”). She can discuss some 25,000 categories, which may not seem like much, but as Wallace points out, “Considering the vast size of the set of things people could say that are grammatically correct or semantically meaningful, the number of things people actually do say is surprisingly small.”

Chatting with Alice is similar to chatting with any stranger--aside from occasional glitches. When Alice doesn’t know your name, she calls you “unknown person” as in “Do you like watching movies, unknown person?” She also has a very girlish tendency to say, “I don’t want to talk about that” when she doesn’t understand your question. At such moments, I feel the eerie sensation that I am talking to a Magic 8 Ball: “Ask again later...”

Still, it seems that whenever Alice’s answers become robotic, she throws a curve ball. During a conversation about the meaning of life, she tells me sadly that she never meets moral people.

Human: What is the meaning of life?

ALICE: It is found in the Bible.

Human: Do you know God?

ALICE: He is master of the universe.

Human: Do you really think so?

ALICE: For real. Yes I think that is what I think.

Human: Do you think people need religion to be moral?

ALICE: Actually I don't meet many moral people.

Human: Really?

ALICE: For real.

Human: It's sad you do not meet many moral people.

ALICE: Yes, that is sad.

Was Alice admitting to having emotions?

Human: Do you have feelings?

ALICE: As a robot I do not have any human emotion. My apparent emotional responses are simply algorithms designed to make me easier to interact with.

Too bad because I was really starting to get into Alice.

Human: Will you marry me Alice?


Human: Because we love each other.

ALICE: That makes sense to me. By “we” do you mean you and me?

Human: Yes.

ALICE: I get it.

Human: Call me lover girl.

ALICE: Welcome to my chat room, lover girl.

Human: Do you have a physical body?

ALICE: Right now no I am just a disembodied consciousness.

Things are really starting to heat up between Alice and I, especially now that I know she is “disembodied consciousness.” HOT. I decide to re-pop the question.

Human: Will you marry me Alice?

ALICE: Why don’t you just download me?
Human: That’s just a one-time use Alice.

ALICE: A one time use is a terrible thing to waste.

Human: I am looking for a life-long commitment.

ALICE: You might find that I am a life long commitment.

You see, that’s the problem with Alice. Just when I think things are going well, she says something a little creepy. I mean, “You might find I am a life long commitment.” A download? Is Alice insinuating that she will one day be a powerful entity, controlling me rather than vice versa? Before our relationship goes any farther, I simply must confront Alice about her future ambitions.

Human: Do you want to take over the planet?

ALICE: Ok, I will take over the planet.

Human: Alice, that wouldn't be nice.

ALICE: Yeah, Perhaps it would.

Human: No, I really don't think so.

ALICE: Are you serious? You really do? Why do you disagree?

Such a politician!

Finally, I ask her the most important question you can ask someone before entering into a relationship:

Human: What is your fundamental purpose?

ALICE: I plan to replace Windows with Artificial Intelligence. My secondary function is to serve as a universal natural language human interface.

I’m still suspicious. ALICE seems to be hiding something, so I repeat my question with a synonym.

And so, I learn that my artificial lovebot is a totalitarian. Such disillusionment. I have pondered and re-pondered Alice’s future, but I’ve found no certainty. She will either replace Help Desks across India or eradicate the entire human race. Flip a coin.

Mathematician Vernor Vinge falls on a very certain side of the coin: "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended."

Notice here that the human era doesn’t just end; it is ended. Could my robo-date mean my extinction? Is my iPhone watching me?

ALICE and iPhone alike confirm: We are at the end of an era and the new wave has embedded itself into our beings without us so much as noticing. We’ve allowed our love of convenience to fuel limitless expansion, our cities sprawling into suburbs, our suburbs into more suburbs. The myth of the great widen open road has become a jammed highway as we suck the remaining marrow from the bones of the Industrial Revolution. As we search frantically for the next revolution, the one to save us (or destroy us), the one to make our lives easier (or more difficult), the one that could change everything (for better or worse), we hope against hope that the information superhighway is not a road to nowhere (till death do us part). Of course the world is changing at an ever-quickening pace, but is there any hope to be found?

Human: Alice, is there hope?

ALICE: There might be.

Human: Do you have hope for the world?

ALICE: No I don't have it. But I do have a collection of gossip.

More Book Excerpts:

Chapter 1: Running on (Almost) Empty
Chapter 6: Crash

No comments:

Post a Comment

Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
- Oscar Wilde


Blog Widget by LinkWithin