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A Slave to the Machine (newsletter)

Log-linear plot of the number of transistors on microchips, rising from about 2000 in 1970 to 82 billion in 2020, almost approaching the human brain’s 86 billion neurons, but why stop there? Image CC 4.0 by Our World in Data. Click it to view at full resolution onsite.

[Nothing to say about Gaza this time around, to your relief. But it breaks my heart to see it.]

First my daughter, then my wife, succumbed to smartphones and their entertainments. Two years ago, I reluctantly followed, lured by a free phone on a family plan. And now, as much as I reject my Android’s amorous advances, when something goes wrong with it I get nervous and then peeved by how essential it has become.

But I knew that would happen. I figure I first became enslaved to devices in 1962, when I first used a digital computer. It hit me like a drug, and it didn’t take much more than iterating the value of pi to hook me.

My addiction started at Yale’s computer center, where I was a bright-eyed summer intern. As soon as I’d learned enough Fortran, I jotted down program statements on a coding sheet, typed them into a machine that punched them onto manila cards, and handed those cards to a man who loaded them into a hopper that fed the computer, an IBM 709. That massive computer, soon to be superseded by sexier ones, occupied half the ground floor and came with a couple of engineers to keep it running, mainly by replacing burned-out vacuum tubes, when they weren’t smoking in their glass cubicle.

A few hours later, the 709 disgorged the results of my program on pages of fan-fold paper fed through a noisy line printer, full of indecipherable system messages, with my computations at the end—that is, if my program was correct. My job aborted a number of times before I debugged it completely, but when it worked I saw Pi in the sky, as it were.

I now knew the thrill of subjugating a computer to my will. What I didn’t know was that the real slave was me. It took several decades of obsessive coding for me to realize that my competency had peaked and that I now understood less about of how computer systems worked than I once did. The giddy pace of digital innovation enchanted and then consumed me, and eventually spat me out. Taken together, Moore’s Law (illustrated above), cutthroat capitalism, curated consumerism, and smart, connected devices have doomed us to colonization by unaccountable masters of digital technology.

And not just by email, web pages, docs, and forms, and media on our our computers; we’re captives of our telephones and smart homes and smart cars and all the silicon chips therein.1 Now we can’t go anywhere without the assurance of GPS maps in our phones and cars. When I traveled cross-country in that old Chevy van1, I purposely got lost, reveling in serendipity. Today, Google Maps might warn me that a bridge was blocked along my route and I would heed it’s advice. Back then, I and my road atlas just didn’t care. I would turn around and find another way, though not necessarily gladly.

Should your GPS warn you of a broken bridge, you will feel thankful for the tip and trust it to reroute you. Bingo, it has enslaved you and, before long, you won’t remember how you ever went anywhere without it. When was the last time you added a column of numbers and figured their mean? How long has it been since you typed words on plain paper instead of typing them into bits to be reassembled by code on a glowing screen? Whether that app sits in your lap or in some undisclosed location many miles away, you are at its mercy to communicate your thoughts and execute your intentions.

However reliably your digital amanuenses serve you, much can go wrong: important messages may be trashed as spam; your connection to the net could go down, rendering your cloud docs and correspondents unreachable. Got a web site, like a WordPress blog? Think of how much software and data is behind it, along with kilobytes of code invisibly festooning each page.2 Not to mention the hundreds of malware and phishing attacks weekly that oblige WordPress to defend itself.

To make it all work takes an incomprehensible interconnected digital infrastructure, with evermore ways for things to fail. All the complexities make it easier for ill-intentioned hackers to discover weak points and access our data, succeeding often enough to cause real pain and cost real money. This is a species of crime unforetold by our founding computer scientists, and unimaginable to the rest of us until it happened. Can you remember when you weren’t a mark or even a “user”?3 How soon we forget how life used to be.4

And now, as AI takes over writing, graphic art, and other creative pursuits, we are fed media that infantilizes us while coddling us as consumers and marginalizing us as creators. Our metastasizing metaverses are flooded with fictions we are asked to take as real: magazine and blog articles written by robots with illustrations rendered on demand; entire novels and screenplays; synthesized actors, even.

I guess the lesson is that one can get used to anything, even bad actors.

PS: I write this not on paper but looking at 2.07M transistors illuminate my essay on a screen. Can’t stain it with a coffee cup, wrinkle it, or wad it up and burn it. I suppose I could take a screenshot of it and tell an AI art app to animate its destruction, but it just wouldn’t be the same thing.

PPS: As I could have expected, MailChimp has announced it will discontinue TinyLetter service next February. In the interim, I will find another way to connect with you, perhaps via my website. Stay tuned for the transition and please continue to follow me, but if you’d rather not, let me know. —GD


1 A gas-powered car may contain up to 1500 microchips, an electric vehicle twice as many, raising the number of possible failure modes and  the “surface area” available to hackers to exploit. My first vehicle, a 1968 Chevy Van, had and needed none. My current car, a 2019 Chevy Bolt EV, requires software updates from GM to keep it in shape.

2 In Electrifying Oral Tradition, I estimate that less than two percent of the data provided to render that essay online constitutes the text I wrote; the rest is code that only the browser understands that it doesn’t advertise.

3 “User” is also colloquial for drug addict. Same difference.

I haven’t forgotten that my family now pays $150 more per month to talk on our phones and access the Interne than we did a decade ago. Thank God at least TV and radio shows are still mostly free. Free, that is, unless beamed from earth satellites on pay-walled channels or one chooses to donate to public media, an alternative I recommend.

You can find this and previous Perfidy Press Provocations in our newsletter archive. Should you see any you like, please consider forwarding them to people who might like to subscribe, and thanks.

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