Odelia Kaly

Robot Apocalypse!


There’s a small Calvin and Hobbes comic strip I’ve read countless times since I first discovered it in a collection at my grandmother’s house. In it, Calvin tells Hobbes that he read a book where robots take over the world, and they both agree that it’s a frightening thought. All of a sudden, Calvin jumps up and realizes that he has to run back home to catch his television show. What draws me back to this strip again and again is that Calvin is living the nightmare he fears: he is controlled by his technology. What I have always loved about Calvin is that he displays the sort of wonder and imagination characteristic of childhood. You can’t help but believe in everything that Calvin creates-- his stuffed tiger, their crazy adventures, Calvin’s bizarre inventions, and all of his otherworldly daydreaming mind wanderings. The boy lives in a world of his own fabrication, experiencing things so fully that the cartoonist has filled volumes with strips about how he and Hobbes spend their summer days. The thing that is so important about the specific comic that I mentioned is that Calvin is usually so aware of his surroundings--whether they be his actual ones or his imagined ones--but when he watches television he lets his guard down. He shuts his constantly whirring brain off for half an hour and lets it go to mush for just a little while. That’s perfectly fine, and most likely healthy for someone as mentally active as him. But Calvin doesn’t realize that by doing this he’s forming habits. His Saturday morning cartoon-watching ritual is a big affair that Watterson illustrates in several comics. Calvin has bowl after bowl of his super-sugary cereal while vegging out in front of the T.V. He does this every Saturday, without fail. While Calvin uses his transmogrifier to aid his imaginative play, his television does the exact opposite: it turns his creativity off, though he sees it as a way to relax and have fun. He’s not wrong; it does both. But as he grows older, he’ll stop believing that his transmogrifier can really turn him into a strongbox so he can fall safely to the ground while he’s flying hundreds of miles up in the air where he has found himself, of course, because his helium balloon carried him way up into the sky. After an exhausting day at school, or a taxing day at work, Calvin will immediately flop into his comfy chair—which he placed equidistantly from the television and the kitchen, and at an angle that abolishes the possibility of glare on the screen—and watch a show that will take his mind off of the problems that will greet him again as soon as he turns his T.V. off. He will have programmed himself to rely on that sort of release.

I’m a very independent person. If I can theoretically do something myself, that’s how it will get done. I’m constantly on the look-out for things or people that I think are trying to manipulate me or take advantages of my weaknesses. My everyone-is-out-to-get-me mentality makes me wary of anything that could potentially alter the way I manage my affairs, whether its intentions are good or bad. I would never get behind the wheel of a car that drives itself, nor would I put on glasses that plan my grocery store route for me, or purchase any of those other seemingly “smart” contrivances that have been cropping up lately. Instead of seeing them as ways of making things easier, of relieving the stresses of day-to-day life, I see them as appliances that force me to relinquish all control and let the them take over. If I allow that to happen, what will I do if my smart glasses break at Costco and I am in desperate need of Raisin Bran? How would I cope if my self-driving car broke down and I urgently needed to get somewhere, but I had never learned how to actually drive? All of the possibilities of what could go wrong make me too anxious to depend on anything that could render me inept in unideal situations. I hate being unable to do things I feel I should be able to do myself, whether it be tying my shoelaces or understanding Shakespeare without the aid of SparkNotes. If we were to always rely on slip-on shoes and modernized versions of Othello, or if were to renounce our autonomy for the sake of convenience, we would never truly learn, we would never truly grow, and we would never be able to adapt. We would be newborn babies forever: perpetually ignorant, starkly immature, irrevocably incompetent.

My interest in this topic was piqued while perusing the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. I happened upon an article about the new smart gadgets that are being invented and are threatening to take control of our lives. My natural tendency to think: “must protect self...must not let others have power over me...must not jeopardize independence...” led me to keep reading beyond the title. This author asked us readers in the opening line if we would like our Facebook friends looking through our garbage. I was intrigued. He explained that trash cans, called BinCams, have been created with cameras on the inside that take a picture every time the lid is closed. Out of context, I suppose that might make for an interesting art project, but its actual purpose is that your Facebook friends can either congratulate you for separating your recyclables properly or shun you for doing it incorrectly. The designers of this product even turned it into a game, rewarding people with points for “playing” faultlessly. It occurred to me that the simple and menial task of throwing out your garbage is no longer simple and menial. It’s a matter of winning or losing. Victory is a drug, and it’s totally legal in most scenarios. Humans are naturally competitive. The engineers knew that full well when they created the BinCam. They took advantage of our inherent desire to succeed in order to manipulate us into taking care of the environment. We’re no longer trusted to make the conscious decision to save our planet. Our technology is determining that for us.

Illustration by Asif Ahmed

There is a certain sense of pride that one feels after overcoming an obstacle of any sort, a feeling that is very difficult to simulate otherwise. When we are faced with something that is painful, embarrassing, or any other unpleasant adjective, and can overcome it, instead of bypassing it, we grow. The issues that keep us up at night (what is infinity? How far does the universe really go? Am I actually alive?) and the ones that make us slightly uneasy at times (where is the Raisin Bran? Should I buy these shoes? How do I tell this person they’re standing in my way without being rude?) are equally important for us to change. Although our intrinsic human qualities tend to remain consistent throughout our race, aspects of our individual selves are what shift and transform. There is an internal progression from infant to elder that needs to take place in order for us to be able to deal with situations as they arise. I’m fairly positive that humans are meant to do more than follow an undeviating path from cradle to tomb. From learning how to ride a bike or operate a motor vehicle, to coming up with a new recipe, to being able to confront a fear or problem (such as our disintegrating environment) and tackle it—it’s not an easy, one step process. It takes mistakes to get things right. These mechanisms that we think are helping us improve may make things easier, but easy is not always the best route to take. Technology is not about domination and micromanagement, it’s about amelioration and survival. Even the creation of said technologies was a process of trial and error in itself. Eventually, we may be deprived of that process because of these gadgets. The machines will be making all our decisions for us because we have engineered them that way.

When I was younger, making friends and interacting with my peers was only difficult for me because of my shyness. Otherwise, I was never plagued by social anxiety around my friends, people I saw everyday at school and then didn’t speak to again until the next morning in homeroom. When I got a Facebook account at the age of approximately twelve, I found it progressively more arduous to act the same way around others. Now I knew things about these people that they hadn’t actually told me, I just knew them. There were no questions to ask or things to say in person. Everything had already been silently absorbed and hung heavily around us, weighing down the air. This caused me so much stress that I deleted my account last summer and spent my vacation extremely in touch with myself, the world around me, and any new people that I met. It was liberating. Upon my return to school, those prior anxieties were nearly eliminated. I didn’t know what everyone had been doing, they didn’t know where I had been, and we could talk about that, face to face. I suddenly found that my classmates often reverted to discussing their online lives on Facebook, Twitter, AskFM, and other social media sites because of the ease and painlessness of talking about something so detached from themselves. This is probably what is most isolating: not missing out on the information they share on the Internet, but not being able to relate anymore. After a while, I will admit I became a little jaded, a little smug about it all. I turned my confusion and disconnection into something more definite. At least I wasn’t spending my time living a simulation of life, right? Instead, I was at home, writing or doing homework, not talking to anyone because I found that I didn’t know how.

There is no way that I’m the only one feeling this way. I think everyone is feeling it, but some of us handle it differently. I rejected the technology that I considered to be a source of my unhappiness, while others stick with it, hoping to find a way to identify and connect again. In an attempt to figure out how to approach the undeniably complicated task of finding like-minded friends, we’ve glorified misanthropy by retreating into our technology, whether it be a cellphone, computer, or now a photographic garbage can. We submerge ourselves in the wall-less, abyss-like world of social media and online interaction that merely imitates real life, pushing us further from our original goal. Our immersion into our gadgets and a simulated world are priming us for what is yet to come. I’m worried that we have concluded once and for all that real life is just too scary to deal with. Our various robots, because that’s really what they are, have become our intermediaries, placing us at a safe distance from everything we fear, anything that can hurt us or cause us pain. Namely, everything ever. We may end up numbing ourselves in an attempt to evade all hardships, stripping us of our ability to truly feel, and that is where we lose those unchanging characteristics that make us human.

In addition to the decreased compatibility amongst people (disguised as increased association by way of Facebook and Twitter), our methods of assessing popularity are based purely on beauty. I’m not the first to say that our technology has shaped us into a more visual culture, one that emphasizes physical appearance over sensory reality. Photoshop, for example, is often used to manipulate the way people look in the photographs that serve as advertisements. We all know that we are constantly surrounded by product endorsements and other forms of image-based promotions of ideas. They’ve molded our perceptions of attractiveness and sexual appeal around these synthesized ideals. The falsification of something as omnipresent as humans means that even beauty, which we’ve built our modern culture on, isn’t as real as we think it is. In essence, life is slowly losing its reality. This is also happening through the destruction of the environment, something that has been brought about in part by cars and oil drilling and other such products of our technological advances. The physical world is the only thing that grounds us, both literally and figuratively, so its ruination lends itself to the demolition of reality. Our universal fixation with simulations and surreality points our society in a direction that loosely follows the plot line of Spy Kids 3.

Our technology is always changing. This is a fact that we are taking note of and embracing, but what we have yet to fully acknowledge as a species is that both humans and technology must adapt to one another. One can’t surpass the other. That’s how we’ve reached this point: we’ve become so overambitious in wanting to improve ourselves that we are actually destroying ourselves without noticing. Instead of these devices (which are an incredible display of our intellect and abilities) representing our collective progress and enhancing our quality of life, in the long run they are depleting our quality of life by inhibiting our ability to grow. The technology will burgeon, but we will remain stagnant. This dynamic could lead to the cyborgs replacing us on Earth. The concept of survival of the fittest is focused around the idea that in order to continue to exist, you have to evolve and acclimate yourself to the ceaselessly metamorphosing world. That’s a hefty responsibility, and it’s not made any simpler by letting another life form (yes, I do consider technology a life form) get ahead. Our chances of sticking around don’t increase when we neglect the deteriorating condition of our environment. Soon enough, we will have created a world where the robots might be more suited to survive than we are. The poor state of the environment may not be able to sustain human life in a matter of time, but mechanical objects are not as utterly fragile as people. Our replacement seems plausible because we too had certain survival qualities that our forerunners did not. The dinosaurs preceded the Homo sapiens, who perhaps precede the cyborgs. Another negative result of our technology advancing faster than us, one that has already become quite prevalent, is that a substantial percentage of the population can’t keep up with the new modifications and alterations. Eventually, things will become more and more complex until only the engineers will truly understand how to use the technology, and then only the machinery will be advanced enough to know how to use itself. It’s difficult to gauge how far we are from that end, but I think that result and the fate of our planet are mutually dependent.

At times I forget all of the marvelous aspects of technology. Without the Internet and my computer, I would never have any of the opportunities I have now, such as the one to be published on this website and the one to attend New York Fashion Week shows. Millions of lives have been saved by the creation of machines used in hospitals and emergency rooms, and products like Life Alert. People are now able to keep in touch with old friends (myself included) through texting, emailing, or Facebook. I don’t think technology is pure evil. I just think we need keep our eye on it. Perhaps its true function is to challenge us and add a further level of complexity to our lives. Maybe the real test of the persistence of the human race is that we don’t let it take our place. The maintenance of our species is a group effort, and not one of us is exempt from it. There will be conflicts, no doubt, but if we really want to stick around, we have to stay vigilant and make sure that those sneaky robots don’t creep up behind us while we’re not paying attention.

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