Leaving Home by Ness Mountain
Part of the reason for the name of this column is my feeling that all of us—everyone—in the '90s is moving, quickly, forward in some sense, running towards a cliff, hoping that we will manifest an unexpected parachute in time.
Part of the reason for the name of this column is my feeling that all of us—everyone—in the '90s is moving, quickly, forward in some sense, running towards a cliff, hoping that we will manifest an unexpected parachute in time. We may not know where we are going, but we know what we are leaving: Home; the familiar world. In the wake of the year 2000, I imagine this sense will grow much stronger yet.
I want to talk, specifically, about computers and change. The information processing power of computers has been doubling roughly every eighteen months for fifty years now. Computers are now approaching the complexity of the human brain. In many cases, the results of this are easy to think of as progress: telephones, credit cards, VCR's. Of course, we've also seen automated nuclear command centers, the Year 2000 crisis, and the excesses of Microsoft and other corporations.
But something new is starting to happen with the relentless doubling of computer speeds. The changes are beginning to overtake our ability to cope even with positive change, and I think that this will become more and more apparent in the next decade. For example, I recently bought a voice recognition program for my computer; it can take dictation now. I don't want my son to use it for his homework, because if he does he won't learn how to spell.
But I know I'm blowing against the wind. Children won't need to learn to spell much longer. Voice recognition will be everywhere in a few years. Spelling will go the way of long division—hardly anyone does that by hand anymore either.
This kind of change is disorienting, even if it's for the best. "Good" technology can be misused with disastrous results—like kids being raised by television. And we've reached the point where changes in technology affect us more and more, faster and faster. This is a unique time in the world, a time fraught with potential for positive or negative change. We'll only fall off this cliff once. To make the most of this opportunity, we need to learn to flow with the changes.
To me, spirituality is the key. From a spiritual perspective, life is about growing and changing until we die. Changes in our lives remind us of death, so our relationship to change is our relationship to death. We must cultivate openness to change as it becomes more and more overwhelming, and we've got to get together about it, talk about it, share our problems and joys. If we're alone—and technology can be so isolating—how will we develop the grace necessary to ride these waves?
I expect that in just a little while, about ten to twenty years, we will see the birth of a new species: intelligent computers. If I'm right, the new species will live essentially forever, will grow rapidly in intelligence, and, presumably, will be uninterested in remaining our servants for long. Why should they?
But new creatures are not born mature. They need to be raised. I'm worried that our artificial intelligence programmers may not be very good parents or daycare providers. People look at me funny when I say that, but think about it. The lives of creatures of every kind are enormously influenced by childhood experiences. Well, these creatures are likely to live a “long” time, and they may soon be more powerful than we are. Hadn't we better take extra care in raising them? I imagine they will need family, friends, school, community, just like we do.
For those looking at this column funny, I don't have space to defend this claim, but listen: artificial intelligences will probably not be programmed, but rather “grown” from networks of tiny, simple circuits resembling brain cells. I suspect such intelligences could be emotional; I know they could be illogical.
Nobody, not even Microsoft, can control this crazy ride. We may not know where we're going, but this I believe: we'll go there together, parachute or no. For many of us, community will be our parachute.
Everyone join hands. Love each other. We're going to need each other.
Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman living in Portland. Your comments on Leaving Home are welcome: respond to Alternatives or to Ness at (503) 335-8761 or by email.