Measure or Measure Up: Preparing for Unpopulated Futures
████████╗ ╚══██╔══╝ ██║ ██║ ██║ ╚═╝
he promise of digital technologies was extension. The capacity to reach out, to engage, to escape the confines of our heads and bodies to roam as data and traffic, in a never-ending stream of engagements and transactions has long since been the aspiration of digitization. From the romantic declarations of the World Wide Web (Lee & Fischetti 2000) onwards, the ambition of computational networks was to not just augment and facilitate the world we live in but to recreate it through 'small worlds' (Watts 2016) that defy the geo-political and chrono-temporal biases and restrictions of our space, offering time as the resource that can be manipulated, spliced, stored, commodified, and used as a powerful tool to catalyse critical transformations. Throughout the last couple of decades of celebrating the 'wealth of networks' (Benkler 2007) as the future of our interconnected lives and the 'wisdom of crowds' (Shirkey, 2009) as the new way of sensing and reproducing the world through digital computation, we have bought into the idea that the web will help us escape both the histories and the materialities of our lives to create something larger than merely the human experience; indeed to create something that is an upgraded version of our idea of the human.
The promise of this extension, this travel on the edges of the network to constantly expand our horizon, to dance in streams of data as we connect and create new conditions of life, labour, language, and love (Foucault, 1970) suddenly came to a standstill when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It came as a shock to many of us that the digital extension and extensiveness were deeply rooted in both the intensity and intention of our lives anchored in bodies and spaces. For those of us who could afford it, the digital commute and work from home concepts allowed some semblance of production and labour, thus giving routine and purpose to a life otherwise mired in uncertainty. For some parts of the world, the social and welfare support and the economic resources for planning and lockdowns allowed for contagion to be contained and lives to be lived in small bubbles which ended up glorifying the home as a space for 'shelter and place'. For some communities, who were the ideal demography that was served by these technologies, the shift was easier as the processes, systems, and intimacies were managed with the 'cruel optimism' (Berlant 2011) that this is a temporary situation before we go back to an 'old normal'1 (Trott 2020).
However, for a large part of the people who suddenly found themselves locked in their heads, their worlds shrunk to the rectangles of our screens and the squareness of our lives, it was a startling realisation that this was not a temporary situation, but a vision of the future that we had not seen coming. We don't have to take a post-apocalyptic perspective, but even without it, it is clear, that the future that we are seeing is an unpopulated one. An 'unpopulated future' is not a future without people, but a future that is designed and planned for occupation of and by machines and technologies, with people travelling through the channels and pathways created for them in this large cybernetic and self-learning system. It might sound dystopian, but it is also a very lived reality -- for what is dystopia if not a nostalgia of the present? -- that many have experienced in 2020. We have realised that if we wanted to step out of our heads, our thoughts, our bodies, our spaces, the only way out is to be able to connect, to communicate, and to create using these digital spaces and tools that have been created, to give in to their demands, requirements, compromises, and reprimands; to perform the 'promise of happiness' (Ahmed 2010), as an 'affect without experience' (Gregg 2010).
This arrival of the unpopulated future is not new. It has been in the making since a while, often presented to us through the rubrics of SMART Cities and Homes, Special Economy Zones, digital twin cities, and augmented and simulated forms of governance. The social web, beyond its seductive black-mirror unfolding has already shown how our identities, privacy, safety, and freedoms will be re-engineered and reshaped in order to meet the 'protocolled mandates' (Galloway 2004) of our digital lives. As we transferred almost all our efforts online and changed our homes and lives to be presentable in the windows of our webcams, it was clear that the accelerated reliance on digital technologies is going to need us to 'update' while 'remaining the same' (Chun 2016). We have experienced, perhaps for the first time, the paradox of having to update our lives to meet the demands of the digital technologies and conditions while continuing to work on 'business as usual'. While these Covid-19 driven changes are new, it is good to recognise that the prototypes and blue-prints of this future have long since been in the making.
My first encounter with such an unpopulated space that is designed for machine living and human occupation was in 2015, in Mexico, where in the middle of arid dry lands, surrounded by coyotes and cacti, there was a plan to build a city with no people in it. The 1 Billion USD investment was aimed at creating a 400 acres ghost city called CITE2, to house latest technological gadgets and innovations that could test out new forms of transactions, deliveries, transportation, and movement. There were roads for self-driving cars, empty skies for automated drones, minutely mapped spaces for deep surveillance, delivery routes for industrial, agricultural, and aquatic movement, ravines and terrains for robotic machines to march to the beat of their mechanical rhythms, testing grounds for last-mile delivery stations and distribution and sorting units, experimental stations for self-renewing energy, smart hubs for automatic and distributed charging of devices, electric and data grids that would control the flow of information and energy for efficient usage, extensive data centres that give instant cybernetic feedback, a real-time underground data collection network that gives immediate visualisations of the processes -- it is a city that is the most cutting edge in infrastructure that you can imagine. It is a city of your dreams. A real life Sim City exploration where you can build the futuristic city without constraints -- a city that is not made ugly, or unexpected, or irrational by the presence of human beings who, as we know, are creatures of unthinking habits.
CITE does not need people. It can house 35,000 citizens, but they are just temporary entities who walk in and walk out, in the service of the machines that are testing, experimenting, innovative and developing new material realities and prototypes of what cities can look like. This model fundamentally challenges the ways in which we think of our city spaces. It presents a future where the city exists without its population. Not a ghost town, not a forlorn space denuded of people, not a barren land without life. Quite the contrary -- it is a city that is teeming with life, filled with motion, buzzing with data, ticking like a well-oiled machine, presenting a dashboard of events and activities, transactions and transfers, intersections and communication, between smart devices performing their tasks with efficiency and discipline. The human subject is an intruder in this space -- a trespasser with a visitor pass, needed to train the data sets and the self-learning algorithms and to generate data for automated systems, but the presence is tolerated only for that purpose. Beyond that, there is no need for the human and there is no infrastructure or facility that can house the human for long term occupation. In that well-controlled system, any unwarranted, unexpected, unintended, or unwelcome presence will be swiftly and ruthlessly dealt with3.
CITE is the prototype of the unpopulated future that we are experiencing. While CITE remains just a fantasy thought experiment, it is a clear indication that the SMART, connected, digital city is going to be designed, engineered, and governed for housing computation and then for the people who will occupy these computational spaces. If we need instant click deliveries, continuous feedback loops, granular data by the second, self-driving automation, and customized and mobile interfaces to live on, then the city's primary infrastructure is going to be surveillance cameras, flexible electric grids, and data centres. We are going to have to let go of the metaphor of the digital cloud and actually look at the metaphor of earth -- the next phase, for artificial intelligence governed cities is going to be digital earth (Shah, 2020), and our houses and roads are going to be infrastructure that primarily caters to these Internet of Things devices. Out cities might have to become giant electric grids, our houses will have to become data centres, and our roads will be interfaces with limited human-only lanes. We are not going to live with machines, we are going to live in a machine, where all our physical infrastructure will in fact be stacks in a giant supercomputer. As you walk through CITE, you realise that every component there, which might look like home, office, park, or river, is actually a stack in a layered computer that is pretending to be the city.
We are thus, essentially looking at a reconfiguration of the human-technology and human-infrastructure questions, not as metaphorical cyborgs or post-humans but as a competition of who gets to populate the futures that we are experiencing. In this competition, there are two futures that are being generated. One of Technological Singularity and the other of Post-Earth Occupations, and I want to propose to us that while neither of these conditions are new, they are signalling an accelerated march into the unpopulated futures.
Technological Singularity in itself is not new. Way back in the 1960s, John von Neumann, the father of computation architecture already predicted a moment in future when technological advancements would make it impossible for the human affairs as we know them, to continue as they are. At the same time, it was being predicted that the world will need just 5 super-computers4 which will be able to perform all the computation tasks that the future is ever going to need.
However, at the SAIL labs in Stanford, there was a team led by physical computer scientist John McCarthy (1955), who was of the opinion that in order for the world to be efficient, we are going to need more computers -- but not computers as things which will be used by human beings, computers as things that will replace a lot of human activity. He was, in fact proposing artificial intelligence and automation as an answer. McCarthy had an irrefutable point -- when it comes to repetitive but significant tasks, like machines that make us live or production line technologies, humans were prone to mistakes that had fatal consequences. McCarthy's vision was that the technologies, but especially computation technologies were a way of replacing the human in specific tasks, and in fact translating the human to data and machinic forms so that it can be made redundant. This idea of translating the human function to machine tasks finds its logical apotheosis in the investments by billionaires like Elon Musk and Pieter Thiel who have started laboratories that seek to replace the human function of life with machine transactions, seeking to translate the entire human system -- biology as genes, experiences as cognition, emotions as brain chemistry, memory as information -- to inorganic computational forms that can make us live beyond our human capacity (Caughill 2017). This technological singularity then, would not be afraid of CITE like experiments but in fact desire it as a pre-requisite for future survival.
On the opposite side of McCarthy's spectrum was Douglas Engelbart (1962) who was not interested in replacing but in upgrading the human through its engagement with digital technologies. Engelbart proposed that humans and computers have to meet mid-way, what Karen Barad would later call 'posthumanist performative inter-action' (2003). Engelbart proposed that in order for a meaningful interaction to happen, it will not be enough that machines learn human languages, it will be critically important that humans learn machine logics. In one of his most iconic experiments, Engelbart proposed physical workshops for human beings to learn binary code, and the way in which a computation circuit actually operates -- he would line people up in a row, each one behaving like one conducting chip in a circuit, and showing them how meanings and messages could be produced using human circuits, reminding us, that computation language is just a language and it can find connections with human knowledges, meanings, and lives.
Engelbart's vision of changing the human to evolve it for the rising technologies finds its feet in the fields of biogenetics and molecular nanotechnology.5 Alphabet, the parent company that also owns the global giant Google, has significantly invested resources into curing Death. In 2013, Alphabet made a startling promise -- they have decided that the problem of human life is death, and instead of focusing on disease, well-being and saving, they are just going to cure the very idea of death (McCracken & Grossman 2013). Looking at stem-cell research that reverses ageing, and thus reverses living, Alphabet's biogenetic subsidiaries are looking at human mutation -- genetically modifying the code and DNA of being human, filling up our bodies with technologies, chips, nano particles, and synthetically fabricated microbial life-forms which will, at some point stop cell decay and ageing, thus granting us immortal life.
If these experiments find fruition, we will be in a new age of designer babies, where foetal DNA can be modified to give it particular characteristics, machine measurements will be able to typify individuals before they find a voice, and decisions of who gets to choose and who should not be afforded life, will be taken by algorithms that will determine the efficiency and probability of a genetic sequence. This is no longer thinking about technologies in the service of biology, but instead, understanding biology as a technology, eerily resounding Donna Haraway's (1985) prophecy that our cyborg futures are repackaging eugenics as genetics, creating new futures where only some people (or cyborgs) will survive.
In both these visions -- either of the diminished human which has to be offloaded to the artificial superintelligence technologies, or of the human who will be augmented by the insertion of technologies in our bodies -- are the seeds for the unpopulated futures that the CITE experiments offer. Because in both of these, the technological and the human are posited as contradictory, contrary, and in opposition to each other. The contemporary moment is the one where we increasingly see the rise of digital infrastructure as the new order of living, we are no longer examining the human future of digital technologies, but digital futures of human beings. This inversion -- where the human being is a problem to be solved, where the human has to measure up to the scripts of predictive technologies -- is new.
And as we continue to normalise our newly confined lives, as we continue to zoom through our social interactions, form intimacies through our digital devices, and create connections that are a function of time rather than space, we are slowly emphasising this script. A transcript of 2020 is going to look like a continuous demand that people measure up to the sudden need of the moment -- to extend beyond our bubbles -- and do it by either learning the ways of existing technologies, or by translating their functions into computational tasks. In either case, when people fail to catch up or replicate their ambitions and competences into this domain, they are made to feel either inadequate and thus in need of professional update, or incompetent, and hence to be replaced by somebody with better skills. In both these responses, unanchored from care and detached from human needs, we see a glimpse of the unpopulated future being normalized by the long now of the current pandemic crisis. This idea of the human as a static, fragile, irrational problem to be solved through the computational scripts of connection and creation, and it is going to be a challenge to ensure that these technologies which are already measuring the human in insidious and extensive ways do not become the standards that we have to measure up to.
Dr. Nishant Shah is a Professor of Aesthetics and Cultures of Technology and the Director of Research and Outreach at the ArtEZ University of the Arts, The Netherlands. He is a knowledge partner for the Humanist Development Institution Hivos, and a mentor for the Feminist Internet Research Network, at the Association of Progressive Communication. His new co-authored book Really Fake, is coming out in Fall 2020 with the University of Minnesota Press.
Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.
Barad, K. (2003). "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter", Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28 (3): 801:831.
Benkler, Y. (2007). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. USA: Yale University Press.
Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Berners-Lee, T., and Fischetti, M. (2000). Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web. New York: HarperCollins.
Caughill, P. 2017. "Elon Musk: The singularity for this level of the simulation is coming soon". Retrieved from https://futurism.com/elon-musk-the-singularity-for-this-level-of-the-simulation-is-coming-soon
Chun, H. K. W. (2016). Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Engelbart, D. (1962). "Augmenting Human Intellect: A conceptual Framework". Retrieved from https://www.dougengelbart.org/content/view/138
Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences. UK: Pantheon Books.
Galloway, A. (2004). Protocol. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gregg, M. (2010). "On Friday Night Drinks: Workplace Affects in the Age of the Cubicle". The Affect Theory Reader, (Eds.) Melissa Gregg & Gregory J. Seigworth. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 250 -268.
Haraway, D. (1985). "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late 20th Century", Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London/New York: Routledge. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20130314123032/http://qss.stanford.edu/~godfrey/vonNeumann/vnedvac.pdf
Kieron, M. (2017). "CITE: The $1 billion city with no residents", CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/style/article/test-city/index.html
McCarthy, J., Minsky, M. L., Rochester, N., and Shannon. C.E. (1955). "A Proposal for the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence". Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20210116113537/https://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/history/dartmouth/dartmouth.html
McCracken, H., and Grossman, L. (2013). "Google Vs. Death". Retrieved from https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,2152422,00.html
von Neumann, J. (1965). "The First Draft Report on the EDVAC". Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20130314123032/http://qss.stanford.edu/~godfrey/vonNeumann/vnedvac.pdf
Shah, N. (2019). "Measure for Measure: Human scales of digital infrastructure", Digital Earth. Retrieved from https://medium.com/digital-earth/measure-for-measure-human-scales-of-digital-infrastructures-9330408afc23
Shirky, C. (2009). Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together. New York: Penguin Books.
Trott, B. (2020). "Queer Berlin and the Covid-19 crisis: A politics of contact and ethics of care", Interface: A journal for and about social movements, Vol. 12 (1), pp. 88-108.
Watts, D. (2016). "How small is the world, really?". Retrieved from https://medium.com/@duncanjwatts/how-small-is-the-world-really-736fa21808ba
Both Berlant and Trot, in their own way, remind us that the old normal is not a temporal function. It is not about going back to specific space or time but to a state of mind, where the power equilibrium that maintained the well-being of the privileged is sought to be restored and optimistically thought of as making us happy. The call for a nostalgic return to the old normal thus erases the inequities and violences that were endemic in that old system and perpetuate the fold of power without resistance. ↩
The Centre for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation (CITE) was described as a ghost town that was scheduled for construction in 2012 but was eventually put into motion in 2018. It was a city with no permanent population (Kieron 2017) and heralded as the city of the future. More information can be found at its Wikipedia page The Center, New Mexico -- Wikipedia. ↩
This particular idea of the human as only a temporary occupant of these spaces is one of the key characteristics of an unpopulated future -- where the human is traffic, and it is circulated across these large computational networks that construct the earth as a super-computing ecosystem. Many of the cultural references to the rise of artificial intelligence or autonomous machines have been about making the human obsolete. However, a more feasible future is where the human becomes a resource that travels through these technological interactions. ↩
Wrapped in enigma and often presented as one of the worst predictions in the history of computation, this proposition of how we will need only 5 computers is often attributed to Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM in 1952, who famously said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five comptuers". A similar prediction is also credited to Prof. Douglas Hartree in 1951, where the mathematician who prophesised that "all the calculations that would ever be needed in this country could be done on the three digital computers which were then being built...". While these quotes might very well be contested and be a part of Internet mythology, they are indicative of the limited imagination of the computer as a machine and have found their place in urban legends about computation history https://www.zdnet.com/article/top-10-worst-tech-predictions-of-all-time/ ↩
Donna Haraway, in her conception of the cyborg (1985), established a clear distinction between biology and genetics. One of the main characteristics of biological sciences and the ways in which they formulated the human, was through producing measures. The human was intended to be the sacred point of origin from which the meaning of the measure was produced, and human interpretation was necessary for it. Genetics turned this notion of measurement around, by establishing non-human readable, machine interpreted standards that presented an information set around in which the humans needed to be sorted in a statistical model of fidelity and probability to the median established as the normal. This was the idea of the human who had to measure up to an abstracted standard. In this, the human would always be lacking and hence in need of an upgrade. ↩