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Doom and Bloom, or The Emperor’s New Chip

by John Mattingly

Last month, under the title, A Species Behaving Badly, I concluded. . .

“Few would argue the most unique aspect of the human species is our consciousness, but there is no reason why that consciousness must be contained and energized inside a global bone atop the body of a non-commensul, energy-eating, land-based, brain-bearing, nest-fouling mammal.”

A few folks thought I was referring to their canine companion here, but, no, I was referring to you and to me.

Considering the dangers of living on Earth and the negative feedback loops of human behavior (as explained at length in last month’s essay) our species would be far better off to download the individual consciousness into a chip the size of grain of rice powered by ambient electromagnetic force and travel freely anywhere in the universe.

This sounds more like science fiction than something a retired farmer would mention, so let me try to explain. When I started farming in the late 1960s, the largest tractor I owned was a John Deere 4020, 110 horsepower. It had no cab, rode pretty much like a box of rocks, and had manual gauges for monitoring engine functions. The year I retired, 2008, I had a 400 horsepower John Deere 8870 with an air conditioned cab, stereo, action seat, global positioning interface, and three computers on board to monitor all functions.

The difference between my experience of farming in 1969 compared to 2008 is pretty much like the difference between actually farming and watching a movie of myself farming. The extent to which I as a human have been removed from the experience of farming is really quite remarkable. And I was more “hands on” than many, considering some of my neighbors have systems with which one person can operate up to six tractors robotically.

This trend isn’t exclusive to tractors. My phone no longer requires as much finger action to make a call, doors open and close automatically, water comes on and turns off at faucets without my touching a handle, toilets flush on their own, my surgeon relies on a computer as much as his hands during an operation, and my truck talks to me.

Several years ago I had trouble with a newer hay baler. It was under warranty, so I called the dealer, who sent a technician, who arrived at the field. Wearing a suit and standing squarely in front of the baler he asked, “Where’s the baler?”

I pointed.

The tech replied, “Oh, never seen one before.” An hour later, he reported: “The computer controlling the pressure at the bale chamber isn’t communicating with the computer controlling the plunger load pressure.”

Talking about machines as if they can talk is now common. Frequently, when I have a problem with a machine or a bill, I’m told by customer service, “The computer made a mistake.” I then ask, “In that case, may I please speak to the computer?”

Or, when I enter a bank or a business on a day when no one is doing anything and no one can do anything, the usual explanation is, “The computers are down,” or, “We just updated our computers and the new system isn’t compatible with the old.”

When my personal computer is down, I admit to feeling at a loss, as if part of my brain isn’t working. The computer has become an extension of my mental capacity, so when it isn’t working, I am limited. There is an undeniable, dependent connection between my consciousness and the computer.

While many of us may see the detachment of the human touch from experience as an encroachment, as dangerously de-humanizing, scary, or wrong-headed, I suggest it indicates an elegant solution in progress. Because humans have, as a species, figured out that life on Earth is a tentative, even terminal, situation, our genetic systems are responding with an effort to change form — that is, altering our physiology to increase our odds of survival. We must reach a more compatible form with other species, and we must ultimately leave Earth if we are to persist.

Other species on Earth, particularly the most successful species, employ this very strategy, putting far more energy into modifying their physical being than into altering their habitat or niche. Humans have arguably altered Earth as much as it can be altered without inviting destruction or calamity, so we are now embarked on a more sensible path of changing our physical being. And that’s what micro-processors are all about.

Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, the progressive virtualization of human experience (or, put another way, the progressive human dependence on the tools of our creation) is as obvious as it is gradual, yet few of us see it for what it is – technology evolving in parallel with biology, and the former showing every indication of surpassing it (See The Singularity is Near by Raymond Kurtweil).

As a species, we will either adapt to the realities of the universe in which we live by leaving our physical bodies to exist and travel as pure consciousness within a microchip (or other suitable mirco form), or we will likely perish, joining the 99% of Earth’s former species now in the fossil bed.

Many people who hear this theory want to know what this farmer has been smoking. Truth is, sitting on a tractor day after day, watching the day begin and end, and enjoying the subtle changes in light, plants, and wildlife was only possible once I operated a tractor with a cab. Back in late ‘60s, sitting on that JD 4020, shrouded in dust, swatting flies, enduring the heat or cold, and at the end of the day looking for the Preparation H, I was entirely too preoccupied with surviving to enjoy the luxury of contemplation.

Today, from the cab of that John Deere 8870, it’s easy to appreciate the extent to which technology has enabled my humanity, and will inevitably continue to do so.

John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.