Stopping Dystopia in its Tracks through Empathy

In the townships of Cape Town, ZA

A couple of (unfortunately) pathologically fascinating things have come flying through my Internet feed in the last few days. This piece is the press release from the MIT Media Lab about AttentivU glasses that use haptic (vibratory) or audio stimulus in case you start not paying attention in class. They’re wired into your brain (a little bit of exaggeration there, but not much) and also track your eye movements to see if you’re starting to daydream, instead of listening to the Grand Vizier preaching at you from the front of the classroom.

The second is a proposal in front of the Trump administration, that instead of banning assault rifles as a mode for stopping mass shootings, instead, the federal government would create a new agency, called HARPA (for Health Advanced Research Projects Agency, like DARPA) that would pursue intensive neural monitoring of citizens, monitored by AI, to determine WHEN one might go batshit crazy and shoot up a school. This article on Gizmodo is actually pretty good.

Never mind the feasibility. Of course, we’d perceive these things as extreme violations of personal privacy. And they’re shocking. And on and on.

But that’s not why you come to this blog. Here’s the juicy, Deep OS stuff that’s going on. As crazy as it may seem, it is a predictable devolution of emergent Authoritarian behavior.

Let’s put up the good old Evolution vs. Sophistication knowledge graph for a minute. (And here’s a background post.)

(In brief — evolution is directly related to increasing agency, empathy, and complexity — sophistication is smaller/larger/expanded scales of ‘complicatedness’)

Once we’re locked into a relationally disruptive, anti-empathetic brand of authoritarianism, which unfortunately, our current leadership represents, the natural progression of the social and knowledge structure folds down and down, horizontally, into smaller scales. We ain’t moving up in empathy, represented by the Y-axis of this graph.

And even though it involves extreme boundary violation (reading your brain to see what’s going on in your noggin, if you’re going to be violent, likely involves a literal physical violation to jack into your head) such concerns don’t bother the ones in charge much. Nor does the ‘false positive’ version of any technology (“We’ve got to do what it takes to keep our schools/public spaces safe, asides from banning assault rifles, of course!”) tend to bother them. If you’ve got something locked on your head, and you eat too much pizza and watch a Tarentino movie, who cares if you have a bad dream, and have to spend a week in an isolation facility because the SWAT team shows up at your door?

And here’s what’s really wild. The trauma inflicted by such misfirings also reinforces the Authoritarian value set. You’re gonna practice being passive. As well as giving up on green peppers and pepperoni on your pizza. And whatever you do, don’t watch The Minority Report. Or the Japanese anime thriller series, Psycho-pass. Philip K. Dick and the Japanese — true inspiration of the potential dystopian mind. Philip Dick was a Time Lord. (Holding that thought, he’s the one person I plan on having lunch with. Along with Matt Groening. I’ll buy. I think I’m kidding here, folks — but I’m not sure!)

Many people will cluck and say it can’t come to pass. My point with this piece is NOT that such things are conspiratorial, nor necessarily inevitable. The problem with them is that they are emergent. They are natural paths of growth of sophistication that occur inside the v-Meme/value set. It’s not just the current batch of bonkers-cowboys that think this kind of stuff is cool. And necessary. Remember, no gun control ALSO suits the v-Meme purposes. If you’re afraid to go out in public for fear of getting shot at a rock concert, that is also relationally disruptive, and community and empathy-destroying. The effects of that have already been seen in the high school construction business — where young, neuroplastic adolescents, instead of learning to care for each other, learn to stanch the blood flow of sucking chest wounds. This kind of stuff serves double-duty, value-set/v-Meme-wise. Not only are people frightened and retreat from social, empathetic connection. A certain subset will also be traumatized by all of it, creating a more reliably passive citizenry. It’s just wild how the old v-Meme propagation rolls. If this doesn’t make you a believer of value sets as emergent, self-organizing memetic structures, I don’t know what will.

What’s even more damning evidence of how all this stuff works, when empathy is absent, isn’t just the neuro-monitoring. It’s those doggone AttentivU glasses. Here’s the short version. Folks in the MIT Media Lab are famous, the world over. In context of resources, they have money to do whatever they want. Someone will pay for it — be it DARPA, a New England or Silicon Valley entrepreneur, or a sheik from the UAE. And certainly, it’s unfair to paint the entire enterprise with a broad brush. But when it came to making choices, the glasses seemed like a good idea to someone there. Instead of taking the money and ploughing it into empathetic alternatives, it just seemed like a good idea to shake students’ brains. The value set/v-Meme emergently reaffirmed their choices. Think about it — small scales (your head), paying attention to authority, who’s up there defining the class’s truth. Homework assignment from the blog for your true Empathetic Evolutionaries — map out how the value set is reinforced by this kind of crazy bullshit.

The deep point of this blog post isn’t just to shake you up. Take a deep breath. The actual deep point is to make you realize that people– a fair number, and well-resourced– are marching, unreflectively, in service of the secret background coding emergently. It just seems interesting to them. Because that’s the way the v-Memes roll.

What should be our shared passion and purpose? Making this kind of crazy bullshit UNTHINKABLE. How do we do this? Don’t go all Authoritarian v-Meme-y on me now. Don’t think solely in terms of bans, or laws, though for the short term, maybe. What we really have to do is evolve empathy, so people not only see through this, but it doesn’t occur to them to attack personal agency and privacy of individuals. And there’s the unspoken, or unrecognized metacognitive benefit. When those people are evolved, natural, harmonious solutions, from delivering care to the mentally ill, addressing deep adolescent isolation, creating engaged education environments, and the necessary scaffolding at the lower v-Memes to assure we have safe public spaces will ALSO naturally emerge. We tend to forget about this when railing on about the latest Authoritarian miscreancy. If we evolve, IT ALL EVOLVES.

Dystopias don’t have to occur if you develop people. In fact, they become laughable concepts that don’t map to reality at all. But that can only occur with the deep realization that we must evolve empathy across our society, following the road map laid out in this blog. There are a semi-infinite number of projects and options to get us where we need to go. All the answers are NOT here. But make no mistake about the direction, or meta-platform.

And for the chronic naysayers — yes, there is the possibility that despite our best wishes, that those empathetically evolved folks might unleash some unknown monster from the depths of our AI work. Yes. I get that. But I’ll take my chances with that as opposed to people directly working on the prospect.

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