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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.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
New research from the University of Granada found that stress could help determine sex.
Stress in the modern world is generally viewed as a hindrance to a healthy life.
Indeed, excess stress is associated with numerous problems, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, obesity, and other conditions. While the physiological mechanisms associated with stress can be beneficial, as Kelly McGonigal points out in The Upside of Stress, the modern wellness industry is built on the foundation of stress relief.
The effects of stress on pregnant mothers is another longstanding area of research. For example, what potential negative effects do elevated levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine have on fetal development?
A new study, published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, investigated a very specific aspect of stress on fetuses: does it affect sex? Their findings reveal that women with elevated stress are twice as likely to give birth to a girl.
For this research, the University of Granada scientists recorded the stress levels of 108 women before, during, and after conception. By testing cortisol concentration in their hair and subjecting the women to a variety of psychological tests, the researchers discovered that stress indeed influences sex. Specifically, stress made women twice as likely to deliver a baby girl.
The team points out that their research is consistent with other research that used saliva to show that stress resulted in a decreased likelihood of delivering a boy.
Maria Isabel Peralta RamírezPhoto courtesy of University of Granada
Lead author María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, a researcher at the UGR's Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment, says that prior research focused on stress levels leading up to and after birth. She was interested in stress's impact leading up to conception. She says:
"Specifically, our research group has shown in numerous publications how psychological stress in the mother generates a greater number of psychopathological symptoms during pregnancy: postpartum depression, a greater likelihood of assisted delivery, an increase in the time taken for lactation to commence (lactogenesis), or inferior neurodevelopment of the baby six months after birth."
While no conclusive evidence has been rendered, the research team believes that activation of the mother's endogenous stress system during conception sets the concentration of sex hormones that will be carried throughout development. As the team writes, "there is evidence that testosterone functions as a mechanism when determining the baby's sex, since the greater the prenatal stress levels, the higher the levels of female testosterone." Levels of paternal stress were not factored into this research.
Previous studies show that sperm carrying an X chromosome are better equipped to reach the egg under adverse conditions than sperm carrying the Y chromosome. Y fetuses also mature slowly and are more likely to produce complications than X fetuses. Peralta also noted that there might be more aborted male fetuses during times of early maternal stress, which would favor more girls being born under such circumstances.
In the future, Peralta and her team say an investigation into aborted fetuses should be undertaken. Right now, the research was limited to a small sample size that did not factor in a number of elements. Still, the team concludes, "the research presented here is pioneering to the extent that it links prenatal stress to the sex of newborns."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.