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Is Technology Uniting or Destroying Us?
Guy Garcia tackles the future of technology in his new novel, Swarm.
Recently I allowed Guy Garcia to strap a Samsung Gear VR around my head so that I could experience the virtual reality addendum to his new novel, Swarm. The term ‘multimedia’ might be antiquated, but seeing his characters spring to life in front of my eyes—behind my eyes, to the side of my eyes, in every direction I turned—conjured the very question at the heart of his book: How do you know when your thoughts are your own?
It’s difficult to discern where reality begins and ends in virtual reality given how immersive the experience is. This question of free will is a constant in an age of neuroscience and technology. We know our decisions are made milliseconds before they arise in consciousness. We also know consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. As Garcia puts it, a synaptic connection alone does not cause awareness, but the interaction of neurochemicals under the right conditions do create the basis for consciousness. Can the same be true of societies? Is there such a thing as autonomy when a collection of individuals are pinballed around the hive mind?
Since Garcia wrote The New Mainstream in 2004 he’s obsessed over the intersection of individual and culture—how individuals change as cultures collide and new forms of expression become available. In 2009 he entertained gender and culture in The Decline of Men; last year he co-authored the bestselling Self Made (with Nely Galán), which focused on female entrepreneurship and how that’s changing culture. Every book offers a big picture view of how cultures transform and are transformed.
Swarm is no different, though this time Garcia investigates technology, using the imagery of a locust swarm. He explains:
Locust swarms are not a separate species from grasshoppers, but just an altered state of grasshoppers due to serotonin entering their brain usually triggered by famine and overcrowding. There’s a bio-morphosis where the grasshoppers actually change into locusts and start to move, not necessarily because they have a goal but because the locusts are sexually aggressive, physically aggressive, and cannibalistic. They’re worried that the locusts behind them will start to eat them, and they take off and ravage entire forests and farms and anything else that gets in their way.
Which is effectively how Garcia views social media. In Swarm an Austin-based hacker, Tom Ayana, becomes enthralled by the potential flash mobs have for social transformation. He keeps his secret identity—Swarm—under wraps from everyone, including his best friend and burgeoning DJ, Xander Smith, who he helps by boosting his social media cred. Smith blows up and is booked on the biggest touring circuit. When Ayana is handed a powerful zeph.r code that cause humans to become a zombie swarm, he decides to test it out as Smith’s VJ.
The code is a work in progress sourced from the Department of Defense; the stealers nominate Swarm as the perfect candidate to test it out publicly given his track record in flash mobbery. Smith and Ayana’s final performance s in a Pennsylvania field. Swarm dispatches his zombie army to march on Washington DC. There might not be any cannibalism, though sexual and physical aggression is a hallmark of this epic journey.
When Garcia began his novel he figured it would be 30 percent fact, 70 perfect fiction. The reverse ended up closer to the truth—he calls it ‘science faction.’ Underlying the novel is a timely theme: In an age of alternative facts, how are we able to wade through a swarm of disinformation to know what’s actually true?
We are addicted to a sense of individual expression and convenience that is increasingly a trade-off to autonomy and our ability to resist. We’re giving up those tools and even willfully denying facts as one of the things that determine their opinions and attitudes and actions. The real nightmare is once people can’t tell the difference between facts and non-facts—or not even care because there’s so many alternate realities to choose from.
One of the great promises of technology is freedom. By observing your purchasing and liking habits the algorithms of your browser engage in targeted marketing, influence analytic feeds, and filter out bad news while keeping you engaged in self-designed content. Incredibly, Garcia notes, we grow hysterical over the prospect of the government watching us through our televisions (and microwaves), but we often willingly surrender our identity to Google, Apple, and marketing agencies. Whereas we see freedom of expression, Big Data observes predictable patterns. As Garcia says,
There’s a religion of individuality but the god is a mass.
The selfies and self-declarations we feel as a unique firing of neurons is really a “single motion at a meta level.” It might feel special when we receive an incredible promotion at our favorite store or the Amazon bot nails a book recommendation, but it’s also blurring the line between fact and fantasy. As technology becomes more swarm-like, Garcia wonders, how we will know whether something is good or bad?
This becomes especially daunting as computers take on more biological qualities. Drones, bombs, and computers are assuming “biomorphic swarming capabilities,” and so to address this question we need to maintain control of our machines. As Garcia frames it:
Why do we have to leave it to the machines to decide our evolution into the next phase of humanity? Maybe we have the biological triggers within us because we’re designed to evolve.
Like many of us drifting through a sea of social media, Swarm is more fascinated by the possibilities than in expressing an exact goal. That’s not a glitch, but the point. The zeph.r code is beyond his understanding because once released it generates a hive mind. The mechanisms of control are uncertain, just as the locust swam, in its chemical fury, destroys not out of pleasure but necessity. Though we contemplate an ethics of virtual reality we won’t know what that entails until we arrive. Garcia concludes,
The only way we can answer that question is to get through to the other side of the question.
In India the supreme force is a trinity comprised of Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. In Hindu thought the universe is a series of checks and balances beyond the simple ethics of good and bad. Shiva, the ascetic who hangs out at funerary grounds, is just as necessary as the creation and preservation of life.
In this system all is transient. The promise of AI and virtual reality might be to stretch that process out, but Garcia is right: we’re the creators of these technologies, yet we’re also the products of nature, which has its own rules that often conflict with the morals we’ve decided upon as cultures. The relativity of ethics is ultimately beside the point.
Is technology uniting or dividing us? The answer is yes. Facing futility might be our greatest frustration, yet it also holds the keys to any sense of liberation we hope to feel while alive. If you’re not part of the swarm you’ll likely be consumed by it.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.