My cultural reference point for the robot uprising/singularity/becoming-data of our age is still Star Trek’s Borg . Long before The Matrix, Star Trekpresented humans as captive cells in a cyborg totality. The Borg offer both the seductive vision of perfection and the rational arguments for homogenization at scale. If these aren’t persuasive, though, no matter: resistance is futile. Most of all, though, the Borg simply use the right word: assimilation.
For a long time, our assimilation conjured images of technology invading our biology, of probes piercing our flesh or of a fiber optic umbilicus, binding us to the machine. Now we understand that our captivity needn’t involve invasive hardware: we bind ourselves, with our data streams (and our desires). We make offerings to our cloud-based masters via the feeds on our devices and the flow of data to and from our GPS’s and accelerometers; we upload biometrics from our sensors and download alerts that pierce our cognition with sound, light, and vibrations.
In fact, our assimilation isn’t the ultimate end of some cat-and-mouse game we play with technology. Technology isn’t some abject blob or grotesque undead horde, devouring everything in its path. We don’t flee. Instead, we run towards technology, adapting ourselves to it, eagerly taking on behaviors that would have previously seemed crazy: e.g., talking to inanimate objects in our homes; looking at little screens while we bump into inanimate objects on the street; gathering in crowds in public places to capture virtual creatures.
Indeed, technology companies hire user-experience (UX) experts and do user studies, with the intention of making technology conform to our desires. Good intentions aside (optimizing the customer experience, etc), the effect is one of making our assimilation feel more natural, making our absorption into the data-collective feel as comfortable and natural as possible. In the hands of user-experience experts, technologies and behaviors that might otherwise seem impossibly awkward or unacceptable make us wonder why we ever did things any other way. How did we ever get along without this-or-that?
We accept their trade: free videos, email and search in exchange for surveilling our behavior and selling our data, our identities. We celebrate how AR has given us cyborg vision–allowing us to see more than ever before–even as our eyes augment the machine, giving its sensors a tour of our life and world. Even as it opens possibilities for us, we complete its data set. Our re-training and re-conditioning by technology feels natural. Our becoming-cyborg feels like it’s a becoming-self. We only recognize that we’ve given over our will—that we’re dependent, addicted—after it’s too late.
Maybe it was never a fair fight. We were uniquely vulnerable. Nothing prepared us for this. We couldn’t see it coming. We’ve been commodified, our bits and data sold, processed into sets—we’ve become the oil that AI runs on. We churn out data to be uploaded to the cloud, processed and sold, in exchange for bread and circuses. Perhaps the cloud has become this generation’s abattoir, where our unique humanity becomes lifeless data, sliced, diced and processed into consumable pieces?
But what about our children? Is it too late for them? Is personalized learning already sending them down the rationalized, measured, tested, standards-aligned path of assimilation, all in the name of accelerating their learning? And is their data used, in turn, to further accelerate the assimilation of future children?
Yet it seems to me that there’s another side to the story: can we actually imagine a reality so assimilated that a single set of educational standards can be applied evenly over the texture of diverse cultures, histories, neighborhoods, socio-economic realities and cognitive styles? Would we ever want to? If we strip away the hype, what chance do machines really have to adapt to the infinite varieties of human needs, behaviors and psychologies? It only takes five minutes on any platform to discover that it doesn’t quite do what you want it to. Robots may want to eat the world, but they crash on the shoals of history’s wreckage (see Benjamin and Klee’s Angel of History). It’s history’s unevenness that gives the world its texture, its roughness. The Rumba of Borg-assimilation can’t vacuum up the debris of history; algorithms can’t smooth the way for the unstoppable progress of infinite scalable processes.
The unassimilable remainder–the noise in the signal, the outlier in the data set, the irrational quirk of the rationalist–of human life is what makes it, well, alive. Humanity’s diversity is its protectant. We are our own fly in the ointment; our own wrench in the gears. Perhaps the curse of Babel is its blessing all along: mutual incommunicable renders us unassimilable. The art you don’t get? Unassimilable. Tragedy and jokes? Unassimilable. Martyrs and perverts? Unassimilable. Mindfulness and schizophrenia? Unassimilable.
Our unconscious, is, in fact, unassimilable. The idea that there’s something wrong with these parts of us–our humanity, our history, our world–promotes the bias that there’s something wrong with the desires, cultures, neighborhoods, skin colors, etc. that aren’t captured in the normal, smoothed curve. Wrong for the Borg, perhaps. But exactly why the kids might be just be alright.