THE RISE OF THE CYBERMEN (AND WOMEN)

‘The Simpsons’ has always had an uncanny knack of predicting the near-future, usually doing so by making deliberately ridiculous predictions that few could imagine actually coming to pass. Such is the way of the world today, though, that the sublime has regularly been superseded by the ridiculous; there was famously a President Trump in an episode from 2000, after all. I recall another episode in which Homer is forced to take a job in a supermarket warehouse; finding it too much like hard work after being accustomed to putting his feet up at Mr Burns’ power station, he attempts to walk out, only to be prevented from doing so by the microchip his new employers have implanted in his neck to guarantee subservience to the company.

Lo and behold, it was reported this week that a Swedish company called Epicenter is already there in the non-animated world. Yes, microchip implantation is an option for Epicenter’s lucky employees; these embedded pieces of technology essentially act as a swipe card for the 150 out of 2,000 employees to have opted for the process – opening doors or paying for goods on-site with a wave of the hand. Epicenter pioneered turning its workforce into cyborgs two years ago, with the company’s CEO claiming the biggest benefit of the scheme is ‘convenience’.

A company in Belgium is apparently contemplating the same ‘convenience’ for its employees, for where some countries lead, others invariably follow. The relative reluctance of Epicenter employees to embrace the practice in great numbers speaks volumes; although the technology is no doubt in its infancy, there have been ethical concerns aired regarding the potential security risks. Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, claims hackers could access innumerable amounts of private information from implanted microchips, a worrying prospect that could increase as the technology inevitably becomes more sophisticated. Hackers accessing something inside us?

If all of this sounds like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian ‘Black Mirror’ series, it’s no wonder; ‘Black Mirror’ specialises in taking contemporary technology one step into the future and capitalising on current fears on how it has already become something so many are dependent on and implicitly place their trust in.

The revealing of personal details that are now a prerequisite for the majority of online transactions is unavoidable if outlets such as Facebook, Amazon and eBay are to be entered into, resulting in the collation of information that forms a cyber profile advertisers and manufacturers can then target. The whole ‘If you like that, you might like this’ or ‘suggested post’ syndrome is a direct side-effect of the info we surrender when we log on and sign in.

In many respects, so many are now so attached to their Smartphones that the object has more or less become an extension of their physical being as it is, provoking withdrawal symptoms akin to those of a toddler deprived of its dummy should their mobile be misplaced. But if a company can inject microchips into its employees on the grounds of ‘convenience’, how long before one of the leading tech corporations proposes developing the principle re the mobile phone? The way avid subscribers to such technology are willing to submit to its demands without a second thought suggests that this possibility would not necessarily be widely opposed.

While the approach of the Epicenter company is embryonic in terms of what could eventually happen and how it could be misused, more advanced experiments have been carried out on surgical grounds, and there are a small number of volunteers who have had electronic implants seemingly on the grounds of vanity and an apparent desire to be viewed as ‘interesting’. In a way, this is not dissimilar to those addicted to cosmetic surgery when they don’t really need it. The British artist Neil Harbisson is the first person to be officially recognised as a ‘cyborg’, having had an antenna embedded in his head, enabling him to receive what he calls ‘an extra sense’ since the interior soft-wear merged with his brain, giving him the ability to perceive colours outside of the usual human spectrum.

The British scientist Kevin Warwick and his wife chose to be cybernetic guinea pigs, with the former having 100 electrodes added to his nervous system in order that he could connect it to the internet. If all of this sounds scary to many, these individuals have at least volunteered, as have those employees of Epicenter; and were these implants to provide the bionic strength we were all led to believe they would via ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’, I suspect we’d all be queuing up to have them fitted; that was pre-cyberspace days, however. Today, Steve Austin would be an exemplary tool of the surveillance state rather than a superman. As so often happens, such technological developments don’t always fall into the hands of those whose means are benign.

© The Editor

ODD MAN OUT

telephone-boxCharlie Brooker’s anthology series ‘Black Mirror’ could easily have been called ‘Play for Tomorrow’, dealing as it does with an unspecified near-future in which personal technology has taken another leap forward; and each leap taken is uncomfortably believable in the most sinister fashion. An earlier episode, such as the one where a cartoon character enters the political arena, was judged by some to be a precursor to Russell Brand’s spell as an internet activist; and as for one in which the Prime Minister is forced into having sex with a pig – say no more.

Having recently transferred from Channel 4 to Netflix, ‘Black Mirror’ is now something that can constitute binge-viewing, with the whole series available to download in one go, rather than the more traditional practice of having to wait a week between episodes, as dictated by the broadcaster. I saw the opening episode of the new series a couple of nights ago and knew Brooker was playing with our fears for the future once again. In this one, the ratings system familiar to anybody who routinely monitors their views on YouTube, their re-tweets on Twitter or their number of friends on Facebook, had become the means by which an individual’s value is judged in all walks of life. Purchasing an aeroplane ticket, a hire car or even a house was utterly dependent on how high one’s online ratings were. Failure to adhere to the system could result in pariah status and second-class citizenship.

Naturally, this system revolved around the ubiquitous mobile phone, with the object possessing even more power than people credit it with in the present day. The fatuous and facile, style-over-substance mindset so prevalent in numerous online outlets may have already made the lives of millions a vapid popularity contest, but here it was the difference between being an accepted member of society and an utter outcast. The authorities’ punishment for a minor indiscretion was no longer a fine, but a deduction of online points that henceforth barred the unfortunate miscreant from participating in the communal summer camp society had evolved into.

I know it shouldn’t, but whenever I watch an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ that deals with this kind of thing it merely confirms my lingering suspicions over the mobile phone. I have a confession to make. I don’t own one. I never have and I never want to.

I must stress this isn’t a Luddite protest. Being online has had huge benefits for me that I could never have dreamed of just a decade ago. It has enabled me to garner an appreciative audience for DIY videos which aren’t to everyone’s taste but are enjoyed by many; it has given me a platform for my writing via blogs such as this and my other, ‘Looking for Alison’, that I never previously had when all my efforts were read by a very small circle of friends as well as publishers that rejected them; it has facilitated cherished friendships with people I’ve never met in the flesh due to their geographical distance; and it has made communications easier in ways that the old expense of the telephone conversation or the waiting game of the posted letter couldn’t compete with. It has widened my world considerably, and I have managed all of this without ownership of the tool we are led to believe life isn’t worth living without.

Not being on friendly terms with any Yuppies in the 80s, the first people I knew who had mobiles were drug users and drug dealers in the 90s. Paranoia over the tapping of landline phones (or just phones as they were known then) made the mobile the perceived safe option when it came to arranging exchanges. They were also handy as a means of speeding up an exchange when ‘waiting for the man’ and the man was late in getting to the rendezvous. The neighbourhood I lived in back then had a high student quota, yet this was still an era in which the beginning of a new university term would see queues outside public call boxes as the latest crop of fresh arrivals needed to ring home and assure their parents all was well. When was the last time you saw a queue outside a public call box? Few students I knew then could afford a car, let alone a mobile phone. How times change.

We now, of course, have a generation that has reached adulthood (in theory, anyway) that has never known life without their electronic equivalent of a baby’s dummy and cannot imagine such a surreal scenario as being out and about alone and rendered unreachable on the other end of the line. What – going for a walk or shopping and nobody can actually get hold of you until you get back home? Not only that, just think of all the things you’ll miss on social media in your absence! You won’t be able to chronicle your exciting journey with a selfie recording the great event either, never mind inviting the world to marvel at your pasty or to announce which coffee shop you’re having your cuppa at. What kind of caveman are you?

I recall a salesman from my internet provider trying to flog me a package with which a free mobile phone came. He had clearly been trained to believe that such an offer could not be resisted by any customer, so when I informed him I didn’t want it he went into a hysterical meltdown, responding to every rejection on my part by extolling the virtues of the object with an increasingly manic sales-pitch; I suspect he probably had to take a few days’ sick-leave to recover from the shock of a polite refusal. I suppose it was that experience that made me realise how odd I was in not worshipping at the enslaved altar of the zeitgeist, but I liked the feeling.

I don’t need a mobile phone any more than I need a carrier pigeon or smoke signals; I just need a landline telephone so I can be reached when I’m at home and I can’t when I’m out. I like the liberation from being voluntarily tagged and monitored when not at home. I can’t do anything about the surveillance state in terms of CCTV cameras, but I do have a choice when it comes to the mobile. I can just say no. And I do.

© The Editor