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April 13, 2017

Fighting off the rise of the machines

Joshua Fanning's solution to the increasing digitisation of life is simple.

  • Words: Joshua Fanning

My mum and dad visited the office last night. We were going out to dinner before they headed away for the Easter long weekend.

I hadn’t seen either of them since February.

Joshua Fanning is the publisher of CityMag.

I gave mum a kiss hello and Lauren Bezzina said, “You have to bend in half to hug her!”

And whether that’s literally true or not (and it almost is), all I can say is that it’s a long way down to that tiny human.

Evolution has never felt so tangible.

That’s not to say mum and I are different. I’m not “improved” or necessarily even “adapted”. Biologically we’re the same and if you map our genomes I’m sure they’ll prove we’re close to identical.

However, we do seem to exist in different worlds.

Mum was born in 1945 and I in 1984. She was born in Adelaide, I – Canada.

She’s spent her life as a nurse, a mother and a wife, while I’ve had at least a dozen different jobs and alternate daily between being a CEO, journalist and magazine delivery boy. I’ve got a dog though – so that’s something.

Clearly, and as we’re told over and over, this is the age of disruption.

But turn off the pseudo-economic jargon for a minute and maybe a better description of the 21st Century is that this is the age of (rapid) evolution.

Mum’s on Facebook now.

Facebook updates the look and feel and functionality of their platform daily.

Mum dislikes this. So do I.

While in Washington D.C. last year I met a Facebook employee who showed me her dedicated Facebook phone, which received almost hourly beta app updates for her to test and review.

The damn thing is getting a little bit better, more responsive and more intuitive… All. The. Time.

This defines technology’s narrative. Technology is the short beak finch: adapting to its environment, overcoming resistance and thriving.

Except it’s our creation. Our digital version of the short beak finch has allowed us to thrive as a species: To overcome environmental constraints; even fight the limits of physics through instantaneous communication and jet speed travel.

It started with a wheel, and then a wing and now – we’re building a better, non-organic brain.

Facebook is a sponge soaking up the seemingly inane and prophetic – the LOLs and the (recently added) teary-eyed moments of human existence.

Facebook is learning from us.

What started as a way for college kids in the US to organise parties and gossip has turned into the most sophisticated database on earth. And when the company floated on the stock exchange in 2012 it gave a certain class of people their first opportunity to own a new commodity – a slice of humanity’s data.

It was no surprise then that the company debuted with a value higher than any other company in US history.

Money bought into Facebook because money likes to keep ahead of the pack. It’s a ways out in front, beyond the reach of your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.

And while Facebook floats for $100 Billion (the majority of which is shared between a few), the pay off for the majority is an incredible resource, free to access and tailored to each and every user’s personal needs.

The masses might not be able to do anything about their plight in life but by Jove, at least they’ve got a forum to complain about said plight.

As Peter Greste noted in his excellent Four Corners report on Monday, Facebook is making billions off our data. And while its technology certainly empowers us and disrupts the status quo it is also doing something else – it’s shaping a new world, a digital reality where we trade our personalities in an alternate reality unencumbered by the constraints of the physical universe.

Away from Newton’s pesky Laws, Galileo’s discoveries and Einstein’s relativity we can exist without physicality, represented by communication. And memes. Mostly memes.

What technology seems to be doing so effectively is distracting us from what’s required to survive. We cannot live on words and pixels alone.

But there really is an alternative from falling deeper and deeper into this technological other world.

While I wouldn’t call it a movement per se, after attending The Festival at Basket Range, I do feel like there is a community of people steadfastly holding onto the material world.

Before arriving at the festival I was pessimistic about what it would be and how much I would enjoy myself. I figured it would just be an oval with a big tent of winemakers in the middle.

And it was that.

No bells and whistles, no interactive VR or new and exciting experiences. Just that really old experience of drinking crushed grapes in the sun.

What made the festival really sing was, of course, the people. The winemakers themselves and their extended families. The musicians. The locals of Basket Range. And many, many dogs.

More amazing than any rocket or computer algorithm is the fact that fruit arrives on a branch, built on nothing more than the minerals of the earth, water and the sun.

The true wonder of life is that it occurs at all. Our laudable interrogation of the map of existence is important. Knowledge is important, but so is mystery.

We think we’re so clever. I’d argue we’re not.

For many of us, we say we work 9AM-5PM five days a week, when in actual fact we’re at work as soon as we wake up – checking emails, updating ourselves on social media – and the same goes at bed time.

The systems we’re operating in are increasingly less human and more machine-like. We are becoming what Facebook wants us to be.

Taking a day out to sit on an oval and drink plonk made within a 10k radius was exceptional.

The sunlight in those bottles of wine radiated through the crowd of 1,500 people. Of course we were smiling, hugging, laughing and dancing – because that’s what humans do.

We certainly weren’t working.

We have the next four days off (supposedly) – given to us as some anachronism of faith long destroyed (potentially by scientific inquest – but more likely the moral bankruptcy of the institutions who purvey the goods of faith).

In that time, I’d ask you to stop a second. Bend in half even and lower yourself out of the clouds of human ingenuity. Hug your Mum, and go revel in nature and try and get closer to appreciating the infinite spectacle of spontaneous creation.

Then upload your photo to Instagram.

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