The Automated Environment
In this century, we have witnessed what may be the greatest revolution in history, in which advances in science and technology have allowed us to push back the limits of human existence. These advances have made it possible for us to overcome distance and physical barriers so we can travel and communicate across the globe. They have slowed the aging process and reduced suffering. And they have surrounded us with a slave technology of computers and automation, that does many things for us we once did for ourselves.
One of the most remarkable of these changes is the way science and technology are beginning to make it possible to control the basic elements of the physical environment. We can genetically engineer life forms, for example, and we have moved atoms, one at a time, in what some say are early efforts to manipulate the physical world at the atomic level. We have even made an early and unexpected effort to use nature as a thinking machine by turning DNA reactions in a test tube into a primitive computer in which the DNA sequences served as computing symbols.
Inevitably, these (and other) advances are reshaping our perception of our selves and our surroundings. The world now seems to have been reduced in size and a collective humanity seems to have grown larger in comparison. After thousands of years in which we were immersed in our environment, we are being lifted out and given a broader view, and we are beginning to think of the world less as a cage or container and more as a tool or media we can use to get what we want.
These developments are epitomized by the emerging industry of home automation, which provides an example of our newfound ability to surround ourselves with an environment under our control. People who live in automated or "smart" houses can manipulate their dwelling space from a computer terminal. They can monitor or alter the status of lights, temperature, locks and other functions by typing in commands. They can control future events by setting certain features such as a radio or stove, to go on and off at predetermined times. And they can look into different parts of the house with video cameras that feed pictures to television screens.
In effect, the occupants of smart houses become sovereigns over their living space and they begin to think of the house as a kind of technology slave. The computer terminal, which can be as portable as a remote control or as ubiquitous as a converted telephone keypad, becomes a magic wand, allowing them to manipulate events that are separated from them in time and space. The computerized house becomes a giant Clapper: both an ever-compliant companion and an extension of the occupant, expanding the ability to act, sense and think.
On a much larger scale, humanity's "home" -- our physical environment -- is similarly being automated and controlled, moving us toward a time when we will perceive and manipulate events everywhere on the earth. Our surroundings are in the first stages of being turned into a smart environment, a giant Clapper that caters to our needs and desires.
Inevitably, these changes are bringing about a new kind of society, in which people have advanced abilities to manipulate both the physical world and worlds of illusion. Everything from the physical environment, and from the world of images or simulations, becomes raw material, that we can appropriate and re-create in our own image. We end up living inside an artificial environment that caters to our desires, in which we constantly manipulate technology in ways that expand our freedom and power, and allow us to transcend many of the limits of existence. The computer scientist, manipulating images to create virtual worlds, and the physical scientist, learning how to manipulate the elements of this world, become archetypal figures of the age.
We can already see the beginnings of such a society -- permeated by computers, automation and simulation -- in almost everything described in the book. We can see it in those smart houses, where the same computers and television screens provide control over both the actual house and imaginary worlds. We can see it in rain forest exhibits, where an environment of nature and fabrication is monitored and run by computer; and in Disney World, the model city, where we are constantly carried to and through a realm of fantasy, by technology. If these are good predictors of the future, then we are entering an age in which the house is a technology-slave; nature is a variation on the Lied Jungle, manipulated by computer and augmented by simulation; and automated cities are made up of material and electronic images (although, it is unlikely we will choose to make most buildings into obviously themed environments that look like they were lifted out of comic books.)
In this new environment, simulations will almost certainly be much like "reality" and reality will develop many of the qualities of a virtual environment. The material world will begin to seem less substantial, and more like an environment of images that is open to our manipulations. The elements of our surroundings will be ephemeralized: they will be lighter, miniaturized, more pliable and pervaded by responsive computers, so our environment seems less like matter and more like an extension of the mind that controls it. Our surroundings will include simulations of space in the form of video screens and images, with which we will communicate with the world; it will come to include computers that simulate human responses, and technologies that turn the environment into an extension of our will. All of this, of course, is to some degree, already taking place.
This artificial environment will be the ultimate extension of the progress of civilization. Civilization, after all, has always been about using nature as a raw material to create products and an environment that expands our safety, our comfort and our possibilities.
Inside this new kind of environment, an effort will be made, not only for machines to do everything for us, but also to bring everything to us, with transportation, communications and simulation. In effect, this artificial environment will be modeled after the buffet, in which all the world is laid before us for our choosing. Television, grocery stores, newspapers, malls, theme parks, encyclopedias, art museums, and so on, all carry out this basic function, offering us collections of information, fantasies, food, products and culture, from many places. The occupant of the automated house, able to see everything; communicate with everyone; order or invent anything, all from a computer screen, is the ultimate extension of these new abilities.
This new environment will vastly extend our power -- so long as we control it -- but we will also have to depend on it, and we will find ourselves living inside it. Hence, the dual image, in which technology becomes both a form of power, and a potential prison.
We can foresee many of the opportunities and dangers in this new society by looking at science fiction -- including the science fiction found in theme parks, video games and virtual realities -- which reveals what is on the collective mind of contemporary culture when it comes to the subject of technology. In one of science fiction's most frequently repeated warnings, it portrays these automated environments of the future as infantilizing their inhabitants by constantly catering to them, inducing a set of characteristics commonly associated with narcissistic personalities. Humanity, or a race much like our own, is shown becoming helpless and both practically and emotionally dependent on simulation and technology. Not infrequently, these same technologies are depicted as trapping humanity in an artificial world in which people are isolated from nature and from the natural process of birth, aging and death.
We can trace these ideas at least from the early science fiction story, "The Machine Stops," by E. M. Forster, through more contemporary works such as Logan's Run and the original Star Trek series. All have the same message: what looks like a paradise of technology can turn out to be a cage in which we lose touch with both the world and ourselves. As in all the science fiction works that portray characters lost in imaginary worlds, here, too, the protagonists have to break out of their technological cocoon to become whole again.
Science fiction portrays about a half dozen basic dangers such as this, which form what can be thought of as the central mythology of the age when it comes to the issue of technology. A second danger it portrays is that we might misuse technology to undermine some aspect of physical reality. Many of the contemporary romance stories described in the book involve this idea, sending audiences and players into exotic worlds to rescue some aspect of reality from being destroyed. One can see this theme in Back to the Future...The Ride, described earlier, in which the audience goes on a time travel journey to save the the world as they know it and stop history from being changed. And we can see it in the Lied Jungle, where visitors go for a journey through another exotic place, where they are implored to save the order of nature from being destroyed.
Not surprisingly, symbolic arenas such as these are being used to act out one of the central anxieties of the age, namely our fear that technology poses a danger to the world and to "reality." They are much like rituals, in which we pretend to enjoy the new freedom from the limits of physical reality made possible by technology, while we reassure ourselves that we can master the danger posed to reality by these same technologies.
Ultimately, these symbolic arenas pose the same question that recurs throughout this book: what kind of people will we become? Are we strong enough to use technology as a tool of progress, rather than a tool of destruction and regression?
Everything from the physical environment, and from the world of images or simulations, becomes raw material, that we can appropriate and re-create in our own image. We end up living inside an artificial environment that caters to our desires, in which we constantly manipulate technology in ways that expand our freedom and power, and allow us to transcend many of the limits of existence. The computer scientist, manipulating images to create virtual worlds, and the physical scientist, learning how to manipulate the elements of this world, become archetypal figures of the age.