“You built it yourself, with play-labor, but politically it’s a slum.”
Hardware is a problem. It wears out. It breaks down. It is subject to physical forces. It is subject to entropy. It deteriorates. It decays. It fails. The moment of failure can’t be predicted, but what can be predicted is that the moment will come. Assemblies of atoms are doomed. Worse yet, the more components incorporated into a physical system – the more subassemblies that make up the assembly – the more points of failure the apparatus has and the more fragile it becomes.
This is an engineering problem. This is also a metaphysical problem.
One of Google’s great innovations in building the data centers that run its searches was to use software as a means of isolating each component of the system and hence of separating component failure from system failure. The networking software senses a component failure (a dying hard drive, say) and immediately bypasses the component, routing the work to another, healthy piece of hardware in the system. No single component matters; each is entirely dispensable and entirely disposable. Maintaining the system, at the hardware level, becomes a simple process of replacing failed parts with fresh ones. You hire a low-skilled worker, or make a robot, and when a component dies, the worker, or the robot, swaps it out with a good one.
Such a system requires smart software. It also requires cheap parts.
Executing an algorithm with a physical system is like putting a mind into a body.
Bruce Sterling gave an interesting speech
at a conference in 2009. He drew a distinction between two lifestyles that form the poles of our emerging “cultural temperament.” On the one end – the top end – you have Gothic High-Tech:
In Gothic High-Tech, you’re Steve Jobs. You’ve built an iPhone which is a brilliant technical innovation, but you also had to sneak off to Tennessee to get a liver transplant because you’re dying of something secret and horrible. And you’re a captain of American industry. You’re not some General Motors kinda guy. On the contrary, you’re a guy who’s got both hands on the steering wheel of a functional car. But you’re still Gothic High-Tech because death is waiting. And not a kindly death either, but a sinister, creeping, tainted wells of Silicon Valley kind of Superfund thing that steals upon you month by month, and that you have to hide from the public and from the bloggers and from the shareholders.
And then there’s the other end – the bottom end – which Sterling calls Favela Chic. These are the multitudinous “play-laborers” of the virtual realm.
What is Favela Chic? Favela Chic is when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills! And really big on Facebook. That’s Favela Chic. You lost everything, you have no money, you have no career, you have no health insurance, you’re not even sure where you live, you don’t have children, and you have no steady relationship or any set of dependable friends. And it’s hot. It’s a really cool place to be.
The Favela Chic worship the Gothic High-Tech because the Gothic High-Tech have perfected unreality. They have escaped the realm of “the infrastructure” and have positioned themselves “in the narrative,” the stream that flows forever, unimpeded. They are avatars: software without apparatus, mind without body.
Except when a part fails.
H. G. Wells, in his Gothic novella “The Time Machine,” used different terms. The Gothic High-Tech he called Morlocks. The Favela Chic he called Eloi. Of course Wells was writing not in a time of virtualization but in a time of industrialization.
About eight or nine in the morning I came to the same seat of yellow metal from which I had viewed the world upon the evening of my arrival. I thought of my hasty conclusions upon that evening and could not refrain from laughing bitterly at my confidence. Here was the same beautiful scene, the same abundant foliage, the same splendid palaces and magnificent ruins, the same silver river running between its fertile banks. The gay robes of the beautiful people moved hither and thither among the trees. Some were bathing in exactly the place where I had saved Weena, and that suddenly gave me a keen stab of pain. And like blots upon the landscape rose the cupolas above the ways to the Under-world. I understood now what all the beauty of the Over-world people covered. Very pleasant was their day, as pleasant as the day of the cattle in the field. Like the cattle, they knew of no enemies and provided against no needs. And their end was the same.
The young, multibillionaire technologist is left with only two avocations: space travel and the engineering of immortality. Both are about escaping the gravity of the situation.
There are two apparent ways to sidestep death. You can virtualize the apparatus, freeing the mind from the body. But before you can do that, you need to figure out the code. And, alas, when it comes to the human being, we are still a long way from figuring out the code. Disembodiment is not imminent. Or you can take the Google route and figure out a way to quickly bypass the failed component, whether it’s the heart or the kidney, the pancreas or the liver. In time, we may figure out a way to fabricate the essential components of our bodies – to create an unlimited supply – but that eventuality, too, is not imminent. So we are left, for the time being, with transplantation, with the harvesting of good components from failed systems and the use of those components to replace the failed components of living systems.
The Gothic High-Tech, who cannot abide death, face a problem here: the organ donation system is largely democratic; it can’t be easily gamed by wealth. A rich person may be able to travel somewhere that has shorter lines – Tennessee, perhaps – but he can’t jump to the head of the line. So the challenge becomes one of increasing the supply, of making dear components cheap.
A week ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a move that he said was inspired by the experience of his friend Steve Jobs, announced that Facebook was introducing a new feature that would make it easy for members to identify themselves as organ donors. Should Zuckerberg’s move increase the supply of organs, it will save many lives and alleviate much suffering. We should all be grateful. Dark dreams of the future are best left to science-fiction writers.