Facebook going offline for numerous hours might not have been the apocalypse, but it highlighted the depth of our reliance on Silicon Valley.
October 4, 2021: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Oculus crash for over five hours. Just one more seal is broken in this Apocalypse. 3.5 billion people not only go without their daily spikes of the neurotransmitter dopamine in their brains, but because they use Facebook to sign in to other apps, millions can’t sign into their shopping websites, they can’t control the thermostats in their houses or watch cable or YouTube on their smart televisions. All hell completely breaks loose. Desperate fans have to wait hours to be updated about the #FreeBritney movement, hundreds of thousands of people on toilets during company time are denied seeing paparazzi photographs of Grimes reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto at a bus stop after her breakup with Elon Musk, and the cynical masses make fun of everyone else’s dependence on social media by posting memes on Twitter.
I am here to observe and record the end of the world as it unfolds around me, and report to the future. My name is Sean Davis, and these are dispatches from the Apocalypse.
It all started in 1870 in Berlin. A middle-aged, bearded German named Gustav Fritsch straps a stray dog to the top of a mahogany kneehole dressing table in the upstairs bedroom of his own house. The dog, alert, awake, and without anesthesia, is justifiably terrified and kicking, biting, but luckily Eduard Hitzig, a fellow neurologist from the University of Berlin is there to help subdue and tie the dog down. Its urine splashes on both the bearded men’s grey suits and leaks off the table onto the floor where there sits a modified version of the first rechargeable battery. It is a glass box full of a sulfuric acid solution with six lead cells wrapped in rubber with two terminals that connect them all. The battery holds enough electricity to power all the lights in the house if needed, but that’s not what it’s there for. Herr Fritsch reaches into a leather bag of tools, pulls out a hacksaw, and proceeds to remove the dog’s skull so his partner could use the battery to send electrical charges directly into the motor cortex and record the results.
And the platinum wires shocking poor Princess the dog’s brain is the technological evolution equivalent of the Cambrian period where the very first creature crawled from the endless, murky sea onto land. This experiment is the ancestor of what would someday lead to Singularity. The work of these two sadistic pioneers showed the world three things: first, the brain is a supercomputer full of chemicals and electrical pulses; second, we could one day create a computer as sophisticated as the human brain; and third, one day we will be able to transfer what we think (our consciousness) into a computer. The discipline of working toward creating a human-like computer brain is called neuromorphic computing, and some global companies with money and resources like Samsung and Intel are taking it very seriously.
“Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will make gods by the dozens.”
—Michel de Montaigne, 1595
The scientific community used to be worried that mankind was barreling into a space-aged future and working on potentially harmful technology simply because we could. While we were willing to accept a small amount of harm for the greater good in something like making a better shampoo by rubbing it in a rabbit’s eyes, we universally condemned experiments like the Nazis performed on prisoners like purposely freezing them in order to find a better cure for hypothermia or using prisoners of war to test ways to make seawater drinkable. The world consensus was that while there are benefits to more desalinating the ocean for drinkable water and curing hypothermia, the cost of getting there in that way is too high.
Even so, today, we see the similarly maligned sciences advanced by men motivated by less ethical reasons. Usually, it’s money. Case in point, on October 5th, former Facebook employee and whistle-blower Frances Haugen told Congress, “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people.”
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While scientists today aren’t dragging people out of camps and experimenting on them until they die, social media companies that have no idea what their platforms will do psychologically to people (especially a growing, forming mind) are experimenting in real-time. Since social media began, teen suicide has gone up 56%.
Haugen went on to say that since negative posts and advertisements get more engagement, that is what the company shares in order to get more ad money. Facebook purposely allows people to share political misinformation with people of opposing views because it gets more clicks. So, while you and I were unfriending our uncles, cousins, and that one guy from high school that you were once friendly with but haven’t spoken to for a couple of years but still decided to approve his friend request even though you bit your lip and ignored the fact that he’d shared one or two too many photos about Starbucks attack on Christmas or “Why isn’t there a White Heritage Month?” memes, Facebook was raking in the money. The reality is? We all worship the Great Algorithm, and the apocalypse be damned.
But now, looking at the bigger picture, I can’t help but think that the Great Algorithm, as an entity, is experimenting on us as Hitzig and Fritsch did to poor Princess the dog. It’s in our brains poking at things, seeing what happens, and recording the results for some larger experiment. And just like a god, it gives us what it thinks we want, so we love it. And in the time we live in, the Great Algorithm isn’t even aware of itself yet. Yet.