The latest film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic “Dune” was released in theaters and on streaming services last month. It’s a visual feast, but also a reminder of just how low-tech many aspects of Herbert’s vision of humanity’s far future are.
In the backstory of Herbert’s universe, there was an uprising of artificial intelligence and computers against humanity thousands of years before the story he is telling begins. There is amazing technology, including interstellar travel, but it is all dependent on human operation because of the ban of “thinking machines.”
From a literary perspective, this was a brilliant move from Herbert. It keeps the narrative focus on human nature. It also ensured Herbert’s novel, published in 1965, would hold up, regardless of what technology came to exist in his lifetime or beyond because, in his universe, almost all of it gets thrown in the waste bucket at some point.
There’s still plenty of modern applicability in Dune’s backstory on technology, where humans end up relying on it for everything and eventually realize they’ve enslaved themselves to machines before the conflict comes.
It goes without saying, many of us are completely reliant on our smartphones and computers. I hardly know how to get from one place to another without directions from the maps app.
We can look up any information instantaneously, but this damages knowledge retention. We also don’t often ask where the information came from — or if it’s reliable. Wikipedia entries can be edited by anyone on the planet and, despite numerous quality control features, can contain all kinds of inaccurate information. Yet, we (and I’m including myself, here) often treat it like it’s peer-reviewed research from a medical or scientific institute.
Sometimes that’s OK. If you’re going down the internet rabbit hole on some wiki, Reddit thread or website dedicated to the history of your favorite childhood TV show and there’s an incorrect credit or episode listing, I’d say that’s no harm-no foul. If you’re searching “Reasons for headache accompanied by ears bleeding profusely” and relying on what you get from Google, instead of going to the hospital, that’s another matter.
Of course, there’s misinformation and disinformation, all easily spread and repeated, which gets us fighting each other, instead of the machines.
But the most devious thing artificial intelligence is deployed to perpetuate is the algorithm. The only thing any algorithm does is keep you on the site. Keep clicking. Keep reading. Keep watching clips from “The Wire” on YouTube, even though the show ended years ago and you never watched it back then or have any intention of watching it now. Stay on TikTok. Share this with your friends. Did you like that? Well, then you’ll probably like this.
Again, this can be relatively harmless, aside from too much screen time. But there’s a darker side to it. You can lose perspective. You can form unhealthy relationships. You can become radicalized. You can become angry about things you’d never normally care about at all. If I doom-scroll on Twitter for a while, I can find myself worked up about all sorts of things, and get a pit in my stomach accompanied by a general sense that the world is coming to an end. Then I step outside, take in a breath of air, and wonder what I was so concerned about.
That’s not to say important or serious issues should be ignored, but social media is a jumping-off point and rarely a hub of solutions.
I don’t think technology is evil. I don’t think things were better “back in my day,” when Atari came out with a game called “Pong” that was two lines batting a dot back and forth and it blew people’s minds. I do think, whenever something new comes out, the first two ideas a select group have are how to get nude photos on there and how to scam people, but that’s hardly a revelation.
Like everything else, there’s a balance that has to be achieved. If you don’t keep on that path, you can find yourself unwittingly enslaved to just about anything. Stamp collecting can become evil or divisive, if it’s all you do. Mind you, that’s kind of boring, so try to pick something better from which to redeem yourself.
But do take a breath and a second to think before clicking on “You might like ...” It won’t hurt the algorithm’s feelings. Not yet, anyway.