Wednesday, May 23, 2012

We Are The Borg...And That Is A Good Thing.

Originally Posted on on May 22nd, 2012.

Let’s be real. The majority of transhumanists, scientists, astronomers, computer specialists, etc. became interested in their fields of study through their interest in science-fiction. We know the story of how cellphones were designed with Star Trek‘s communicators in mind, as were tablet computers, ebooks, and other new technologies. That has all been well-documented and I’m relatively certain that it is not news to most of us. Star Trek has been very influential in my life, guiding my thought processes in many areas, like physics, astronomy, quantum mechanics - even politics and economics.

I think that, more so than Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5, the galaxy as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry has inspired people from all walks of life - scientist and layperson, politician and religious leader, male and female - to work toward creating a better future. The idea of this liberal, technologically-advanced, culturally-diverse near-utopia that has no further need for hard labor, resource mining, or even money has given people something to strive toward.

Yet there is a dark side to Star Trek.

 The most feared villains of the 24th Century are a monstrous group of cybernetically enhanced organisms connected to each other through a collective hive-like consciousness. They have lost all semblance of individuality. They are the Borg, and their only desire is to “assimilate” every free being they see into the Collective, “adding their biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.” The Borg are cold, unfeeling drones, who speak as one in a monotonous cacophany. Their limbs are replaced with tools, specially designed for the work that that drone is expected to perform. Most have at least one eye replaced with an implant which allows them to see beyond the visible spectrum, and which also has a nifty heads-up display. When a Borg is killed another appears next to it, removes vital pieces of technology, then walks away. The dead drone then disappears. Beamed? Disintegrated? Who knows? But the other drones don’t seem to care, so neither do we. What people find most disturbing about the Borg is their loss of individuality. They are the zombies of Star Trek, and are popular for the same reasons.

 Pretty terrifying, isn’t it?

 Every time some new piece of technology is invented - every new social network that goes online - every breakthrough in human-computer interface is cause for alarm in many people who feel that we are becoming ever more like the Borg Collective. As is customary for my articles, a quick Google Search will come up with some insight into the thoughts of the non-transhumanists.

 As a rule, when some new gadget is introduced, like say the Oakley’s HUD glasses - a competitor to the Google Glasses, one of the first reader comments will be the familiar “Resistance is Futile.” refrain. It doesn’t even have to make sense to the article. There just has to be a report on a major (or not-so-major) news site about technology, and somewhere beneath it, you will see those words.

 But is it such a bad thing for humanity to want to become a collective? Isn’t one of the main selling points of the internet, social media, etc. the fact that we are all now closer than ever? What I write on my Twitter account can be read by hundreds or even thousands of people instantly. They know what I am thinking, and I can see what is on the mind of all the people I follow. Facebook allows me to share videos, photos, music, status updates and more (although I rarely use Facebook anymore, but I plan on returning to it). Foursquare, Google+, LinkdIn, Skype, and all the other apps and social media are being used to keep us constantly “plugged in” to our peers, our favorite celebrities, causes, politicians, businesses and anyone or anything else we want. Anything I want or need to know can be accessed instantaneously through my various devices. I have been keeping up on the reasearch into Google Glasses, Augmented Reality, implanted microchips, prosthetic limbs, brain uploading and more and I have to say “bring it on!” I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and have lived on both sides of the technology boom. As a child I listened to vinyl records and now I have hours of music loaded onto my Android phone. I used to go to the corner Blockbuster once a week to rent VHS tapes and now I can instantly Netflix anything I want on my laptop, phone or TV. As I write these articles, or my upcoming novel, if I need specific information about a topic, it is there for me, either online or through a friend or follower, and I find that to be incredibly exciting.

In other words, I grew up “free” and have been “assimilated” into the collective consciousness of humanity, which is increasingly digital. 24 hour news has given rise to instant political commentary, so I know where each side stands on a given situation. People from all walks of life give input on message boards, Twitter and Facebook. CNN often shows viewer Tweets in the scroll at the bottom of the screen. Yet I do not feel like I have lost my individuality, in a Borg-like stupor. I feel much more informed than I would be if I were disconnected. I feel like I am a part of a greater whole. And I feel like I can be heard. I am not a voiceless drone. I am not one of the millions speaking in unison. The technology that connects me to everyone else does not rule me. I rule the technology and I use it to better myself. After all, isn’t that what Transhumanism is all about?

So how do we spread the word? How do we make breakthrough technology “sexier” to the general public? It seems that as long as there is some distance between the person and the product, people aren’t as nervous. Cell phones, tablet computers, iPods and the like are ubiquitous. However, as soon as someone brings up microchip implants, HUD glasses or thought-controlled interfaces - wearable technoloogy - people are upset about the potential consequences. In other words, how do we let people know that can we make “cyborgs” without making “The Borg?”

 This one will all come down to advertising, I think. Take a look at this video...

 And this one…

 These videos show people who are becoming more and more integrated with their technology. The woman in the first video has received an implant that allows her to hear for the first time. Did she immediately lose all her humanity? No. She is now able to participate more in society. To hear music, laughter, and all sorts of other things. Her use of this technology gave her one of the most sincere and wonderful emotional reactions I’ve ever watched. Cyborg? Yes. Borg? Not even remotely. The second video shows how currently developing technologies are going to integrate into the daily lives of people in the not-too-distant future. Do these people seem inhuman? Do they walk around like mindless zombies? No. In fact, they appear to have more time for interpersonal communication and healthy relationships. Of course, this video was created to make everyone appear happy, wealthy and well-adjusted. The truth will probably be a little less pleasant, but the idea remains the same, and it’s a good one. This video shows us that the future can be more like Star Trek, and that that future is not very far off.

A constant influx of these types of images - of happy people and their serene lives made possible through technology - might help to soften some of the Luddite reaction. Although, the comments sections beneath both of those videos on YouTube do feature debates and some very frightened people. We will never make everyone happy about the merger of man and machine, but with continued positive press and cheaper and more powerful devices, we will soon become linked together to spread our ideas, our beliefs, our lives with each other on a global scale, and we will be able to see, hear and do things that no humans in history have ever done. We are a collective species already, living in our big cities and longing to be part of groups with similar interests. We just need to take the next step - together.

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