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Mihkel Mutt: Suckling at the teat of information technology

Mihkel Mutt.
Mihkel Mutt. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

What will life be like a hundred years from now? The skills of mental arithmetic and handwriting disappearing will merely be the blossoms of as of yet unknown fruits. Without any force in the opposite direction, mankind's future would be that of an amoeba floating in a solution, occasionally poked by a machine of our own making, Mihkel Mutt writes.

There has been much ado about artificial intelligence lately. Rightly so, as the convergence of man and machine is natural and their eventual merger more than likely. Next to intellectual property lines becoming blurred, employment, global "spying" and other topics, we should pay attention to the psychological-procedural aspect, or how our virtual reality has come about and become second nature.

I started thinking recently after I was (once again?) told that if I want a digital subscription without ads, it will cost me more. The equation for the future is reflected therein.

There was a time when those used to the Soviet world's monochrome media got high on advertising as a fascinating phenomenon in itself, more so as it was associated with freedom and the West. Right now, advertising is for most people a nuisance, like smog or traffic jams – a (collateral) vice accompanying modern conveniences.

That is why people learned long since to ignore advertising. It is easy in certain situations. Walking in the city, you can just look away and keep listening to your "inner music." It is much harder online as the banner on the screen inevitably commands your attention. While there are ways to block ads, those pushing them keep coming up with new ways of doing just that. The symmetry is the same for cops and robbers –the former are always one step ahead. And this is what makes it possible to sell getting rid of ads.

It is a bit like a protection racket where you first create the danger and then offer fictitious protection from it for a fee. I am also thinking of (imaginary?) sinister medics who first come up with a new virus and then develop and sell you the drug to counter it, or thrillers where criminals kidnap a wealthy couple's child and threaten to turn them into a drug addict if mom and day fail to pay up.

Staying in touch with the virtual world is both a brilliant opportunity and a consciously shaped addiction that betrays a strategy. The crafty dealer initially offers their goods almost for free, while the price starts going up once the customer is hooked. You end up being dragged along.

Let us conduct a thought experiment where the price of mobile services is doubled overnight. How many SIM cards would be thrown out as a result? Almost none. What about a hike of three times? Five times? Ten? Rather, people would give up everything else, from selling the stock to canceling hobby school, pulling the elderly out of nursing homes to not going to the theater anymore, because "I simply must be in the system."

Things will not go that far, of course, as it would simply not benefit the owners of media platforms. The squeeze needs to be applied gradually. This also creates bottom-up salary pressure and inflation, making sure the conveyor belt keeps going.

This is not only or even primarily about smartphones, which are simply the handiest example and symbol. I also knowingly refrain from blaming the content offered by social media channels, which can vary to a great deal (and also be educational at times). What matters is the mechanism – the perpetuation of the teat, with one side supplying and the other consuming. The trend is irreversible.

What will life be like a hundred years from now? The skills of mental arithmetic and handwriting disappearing will merely be the blossoms of as of yet unknown fruits. Without any force in the opposite direction, mankind's future would be that of an amoeba floating in a solution, occasionally poked by a machine of our own making.

That amoeba exists in its own imagination where impulses sent directly to the brain provide it with everything it needs: an African Safari followed by a weekend with Angelina Jolie, mystic experiences and religious rapture, a five-star Michelin dinner and ocean cruise, poetry and symphony, an Olympic gold medal and a state decoration etc. Whereas asking whether the amoeba finally succumbs in its solution would be a completely inappropriate question epistemologically.

But what could that opposite force be? The age-old question of the elite versus the masses is raised in a new light. The rule of thumb is that nothing that adds to convenience is ever given up, that we cannot rewind life so to speak. The only possibility is to try and explain the downsides of new things – which almost always exist – and warn people to keep their wits about them. But this does not really fit into the business model. Therefore, enlightening everyone remains hopeless.

Most modern people are falling into a pleasant and relatively easy slavery. The new elite is made up of those who manage to keep their wits, use everything new but also realize what it means. They will not turn their back on civilization to go live in the woods, while they will retain the ability to live both physically and virtually. (Could personal ads looking for someone whose phone is only good for making calls and who does not have a Facebook account be an early manifestation? Yes, if not literally.)

There will be an alternative education system etc. It is also quite likely that so-called elite parents will raise elite children etc. which trend will only become more persistent in time.

Perhaps Nietzsche's Ubermensch is he who can use smart technology and laugh about it without becoming an addict? The future Mental Defense League of Estonia might want to keep this in mind.

What I have described might also be compared to the Muslim Brotherhood using Western technology to try and destroy the West. No, we do not have to destroy anything, while we will need to retain Man's two-way nature, his psycho-physical dualism as it is a guarantee of our human countenance in the most general terms.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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