A Manifesto of Sorts
For over two millennia, humans have built systems and tools to help us interact with, understand, and shape the world around us. As the fields of mathematics, science, and engineering have expanded over the centuries, so has our ability to understand and shape our environment and ourselves. In the 20th century, the advent of computer science and mobile technology has unleashed endless streams of data. To capitalize on the resulting font of information, computer scientists and corporations have constructed machine-learning and artificial intelligence systems to help find signals in the noise and identify patterns in the data of everyday life— in the process, opening up a Pandora’s box of algorithmic control.
Yet this explosion of technology has quickly turned unwieldy. Despite the technological promise of simplification and liberation of human life, our attempts to understand human nature and solve our increasingly intractable societal problems have often made our existences more complicated. Surrounded by omnipresent black mirrors and under the constant technological surveillance of our devices, our attention is increasingly captivated by streams of notifications, communications, and entertainments with no end. Every day, a new app or wearable device to help us parse, with middling success, the information overload. The modern artificial intelligence systems used to feed these streams and support our coping mechanisms have become so daedalean that in many cases, their inner workings are beyond the comprehension of their own creators. An alienating cycle of advancement has emerged: the more technology we use to collect, analyze, and distribute data, the less our minds are able to parse it, and the more we must rely on new forms of technology to get by.
This struggle has given birth to pattern machines of unprecedented sophistication: ones which contain both the solutions to old problems and the seeds from which a new set of societal problems emerge—and even threaten to push and nudge us into becoming unthinking pattern machines ourselves. Yet this cycle is not inevitable, and escaping it does not necessitate a return to Luddism. Well-worn as the assertion may be, we must remember that technology is not a neutral construct; unexamined societal assumptions, powerful political factors, and the unyielding economic logics of capitalism shape the development of technology and fuel the feedback loops of alienation in which we are presently ensnared. Careful examination of these factors is required if we hope to liberate ourselves from the enslavement of digital alienation and reclaim a sense of spatiotemporal existential freedom.
Our present challenge is not to halt technological development or turn back time. Rather, we must take a new path and reorient technological development toward collective human needs in lieu of private profit. Such a significant pivot necessitates a new set of design ethics, technological infrastructures, and societal paradigms that will guide us toward a world of humane design ethics, accessible technology, and equitable distribution of opportunity and resources.
In our inaugural issue of original essays, fiction, poetry, and art, the Protean Collective seeks to explore how technology impacts the human condition. We propose to examine how endless streams of information can lead to individualized forms of insanity and dislocation, the ways in which social media is not merely reflecting the world but remaking it in its own image; how search trends can reveal societal pathologies, and much, much more.
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