Here’s a fascinating article, which came my way via Tim O’Reilly’s Twitter feed, on the subject of whether the sciences of code and networks shouldn’t be considered biological. Some choice phrases which caught my attention – and which I hope will encourage you to read the piece in full, even if at first glance you may feel it isn’t something which should necessarily interest you:
[...] we now live in a world [...] increasingly run by self-replicating strings of code. Everything we love and use today is, in a lot of ways, self-reproducing exactly as Turing, von Neumann, and Barricelli prescribed. It’s a very symbiotic relationship: the same way life found a way to use the self-replicating qualities of these polynucleotide molecules to the great benefit of life as a whole, there’s no reason life won’t use the self-replicating abilities of digital code, and that’s what’s happening.
What’s, in a way, missing in today’s world is more biology of the Internet. [...]
[...] In 1945 we actuallydidcreate a new universe. This is a universe of numbers with a life of their own, that we only see in terms of what those numbers can do for us. Can they record this interview? Can they play our music? Can they order our books on Amazon? If you cross the mirror in the other direction, there really is a universe of self-reproducing digital code. When I last checked, it was growing by five trillion bits per second. And that’s not just a metaphor for something else. It actually is. It’s a physical reality.
[...] money is a very good example, because money really is a sort of a gentlemen’s agreement to agree on where the money is at a given time. Banks decide, well, this money is here today and it’s there tomorrow. And when it’s being moved around in microseconds, you can have a collapse, where suddenly you hit the bell and you don’t know where the money is. And then everybody’s saying, “Where’s the money? What happened to it?” And I think that’s what happened.
What’s the driver today? You want one word? It’s advertising. And, you may think advertising is very trivial, and of no real importance, but I think it’s the driver. If you look at what most of these codes are doing, they’re trying to get the audience, trying to deliver the audience. The money is flowing as advertising.
This is one of those articles you come across every so often which opens up to a non-expert like myself a whole wonderful new world of ideas in brilliant clarity. I am not a computer scientist nor particularly adept at so many of the specialities mentioned quite by-the-by in this beautiful text, but in so very few lines I am immediately able to appreciate that we will shortly become some of the least important entities on the planet.
There will come a moment when the self-replicating code thus described will become very much more complicated than even our own precious DNA. What then, say you and I? What will happen then? Should we fear this moment or simply hope – a little ant-like – that we may be so very insignificant that we will not pose a threat worth bothering about?
Software as neo-nature; money and receptor audiences; how to see advertising as a virtuous tool to a different dimension here on Planet Earth. Who would have thought it? What’s really driving our futures is no longer the porn-focussed technologies of the Nineties and Noughties but the ability of commerce to gather together consumer-motivated individuals in $100 billion Facebook-ed packages of stock market worth.
In reality, we need not fear these new lifeforms at all – as long as we are prepared to maintain our firm attachment to the advantages of conspicuous consumption they all now seem to be offering us. As the piece concludes about Apple’s progressive encroachment:
Why is Apple one of the world’s most valuable companies? It’s not only because their machines are so beautifully designed, which is great and wonderful, but because those machines represent a closed numerical system. And they’re making great strides in expanding that system. It’s no longer at all odd to have a Mac laptop. It’s almost the normal thing.
And there will come a time, just mark my words, when any Luddite-like attempt to resist the charms of these “creatures” (and here I refer to the self-replicating code of the article more than its containing black boxes and physical manifestations) will result in automatic isolation, digital excommunication and – possibly – literal extermination by a evermore tentacled virtual and commercial enclosure.
How smart might that smart meter become? Now have you ever thought about that?
And pushing the thought a little bit further, will this digital biology signal the final triumph of consumerist corporate capitalism over humanity – even as if we believe we are in the midst of its final days? Because it jolly well could you know. It jolly well could.
In such a way, then, from 18th century sole traders where individuals were all important and all inscribing on both sides of the transactions to those eternal anonymous 20th century corporate bodies where individuals were important insofar as they formed part of masses whose behaviours could be predicted to commercial ends, we move into an ambush of technological proportions where – perhaps – we will end up witnessing our total downgrade as entities: no longer anything but servile generators of content which the self-replicating numbers take over, feed off, mould, channel, distribute and shift.
We may, in fact, arrive at a situation whereby the humans finally become the machines and the machines finally become the humans.
Maybe it’s already happened. The capitalism that’s failed us is the human-run one – that’s the one we’ve seen come crashing down around us over the past couple of years. It’s through the emotion-ridden intervention of humans that we have arrived at the current misery we’re suffering from.
The machine-run one, however, the one run entirely by and for machines that is, may only just now be on its starting-blocks …