Monday, July 12, 2010

The Digital Divide Becomes a Chasm

I’ve been reading Ray Kurzweil this week. His singularity premise is that we are approaching a point where technology will literally explode and the nature of the human being will change, as the machine world becomes more like us, and we become more like the machine world.

A big question: are all of us going along for the ride?

Let’s say we get to a point where a connection to the Internet can be implanted in the human brain. It would be a tremendous advantage to those with the virtual portal. Who would you want to hire- the guy who has to tap his question into a search engine, or the woman who just spat out the answer a few seconds after you asked the question?

How much would such a surgery cost? If it reflects current trends in technology you would think that it would start really expensive and then eventually becoming cheaper. That seems to be how everything works. At first the fancy new cell phone costs $400 and a year or so later it’s being offered for free with a two-year contract. Would we be so quick to give the masses direct neural access to the virtual world?

Everyone may have cell phones, but not everyone has computers at home or high speed Internet. It may seem like it to those of us with middle class means. In reality there are plenty of folks without a home Internet connection, especially in rural and inner city areas. Sure, they may have cheap cell phones, but what are these really worth? You can chat with your friends all you want, that doesn’t make you smarter. The Internet clearly does make you smarter. More so, you can create things on the Internet, become an entrepreneur, and challenge the establishment. There are many good reasons to want quick access to the Internet, and some of them don’t even have a connection to porn.

The price of phones, even smart phones with Internet access, has decreased over the years. What hasn’t decreased in cost is Internet service itself. The average inner city teen is unlikely to be able to afford $50 a month for a basic Internet service plan. High speed Internet for a home connection remains relatively expensive.

Why does it matter?

Kids with home Internet and high speed connections understand search. They know how to navigate the web. Hopefully they know how to think critically about what they find on the web (because they have been surfing for years, and probably with parental input). Poor kids don’t have these luxuries. They have a cheap cell phone to chat and text with their buddies.

Will the singularity bring about a digital divide that grows to mammoth proportions? Will there be an entire class of transhumans ruling the world and sad, bio-only humans living in poverty on the fringe?

What does any of this have to do with alien First Contact? If alien visitors are millennia ahead of us in technology, they would likely understand where we are in the current technology cycle and where we are headed. They might even be concerned about such things. I know... the idea of good willed extraterrestrials looking out for the future of mankind is hackneyed. Still, you would imagine they would have insight about where our technology might be leading us. If they do want to influence our world, they might want to make contact sooner, rather than later.

But then perhaps they are waiting for us to become something else? Many astrophysicists propose that any extraterrestrial life we meet would likely be machine based. It makes sense for interstellar travel and solves many problems associated with moving about the universe. Are the machines simply biding their time, until we become machines?

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