I have reported the remarkable extent, though of course limited, to which I can inhabit Vassal’s mind and he mine. That is not surprising considering all the time we have spent together. But even before that, we appreciated similar ideas, and examined our realities in similar ways. I first became aware of that affinity of ours before we met, when I first heard about his invention and his refusal to share it with the government. Since we began working together, we have enlarged that affinity every day.
For instance, now that he is releasing his invention, both of us have been thinking more about what people will do with it. In this book, I describe many of the uses we have thought of. Many that I have thought of build upon ones he has mentioned to me, but tend to be more near-term and practical.
Here are a few:
- Personal: keeping an eye on children, partners, friends, aging parents, etc.;
- Medical: remote consultation, observation, diagnosis, and treatment;
- Military, criminal, and terroristic: lethal weaponry (little exploding or inoculating stingers, etc.), sabotage, intelligence gathering, etc.;
- Other intelligence gathering: diplomatic, corporate, commercial, political, etc.;
- Law enforcement: watching streets and neighborhoods; gathering evidence; observing prisoners, criminals, suspects, and parolees;
- Watching law enforcement;
- Also: search-and-rescue, agriculture, education, and many kinds of research.
A complete list and description of uses we have thought of, and the issues they raise and problems they pose, would fill this book and more, and new ones come to mind all the time. The prospects seem limitless, and the world seems ready. Even before his invention’s release, drones/UASs (unmanned aircraft systems), robots, sensors, and other remote devices are being used for many of the purposes I have described. Vassal’s device and its derivatives will replace and combine with many of those.
Among other likely developments is its integration with observant computing. Observant computing uses audio, visual, and other sensors to recognize and interpret events in the observable world, then trigger responses. Vassal’s device and its like will be used to monitor everything from borders and entryways of every kind to weather and marine conditions, safety hazards, crowds and other public gatherings, traffic, etc. When necessary, in concert with suitable computing, it will initiate appropriate notifications, warnings, and alarms.
For law enforcement, intelligence, and security professionals, such systems will help identify suspects and other targets. By watching those people’s facial expressions, styles of walking, gestures, and other conduct, and listening to speech and speech patterns, they will analyze and sometimes anticipate behavior. Once they identify a person or set of conditions, they will query databases and other resources to learn more, then send the information to people or computers that can take further action: turn machines and other devices on or off; open or close doors, hatches, and floodgates; and prompt live interventions by medical workers, police, military, teachers, supervisors, parents, caregivers, and others.
People will also use elements of Vassal’s device for interpersonal communication. That field develops rapidly, so it is hard to speculate how it may develop in the years ahead, but the technology he has developed will be relevant.
A possibility he has thought of: “. . . a miniature audiovisual phone that you wear as a pin, an earring, or on a necklace or on the brim of a hat. Things like that are already coming. My invention will make that easier, since it integrates well with mobile devices. There weren’t many of those when I invented it back in the 70s or I might have done that then, and this time around I’ve just produced my little flying bug. But you can be sure someone will do that soon.”
* * *
Vassal has speculated that one day we may not only implant devices like his within us, but merge with them physiologically and genetically. As he says, the human body is a system comprised of subsystems—cardiopulmonary, nervous, skeletal, etc. He suggests that his invention and similar ones may become such subsystems.
That could happen a number of ways. Similar developments have occurred in the past. Scientists hypothesize that we evolved from single-celled animals that split in two normally when reproducing, but then stuck to each other, remained interconnected, and became multicellular. Those cells colonized and evolved complementary functions such as locomotion, reproduction, food gathering, metabolism, excretion, self-defense, etc. In the future, as our genetic and other biological engineering become more sophisticated, some of its products, some resembling Vassal’s, will join the colony that we already are.
He has spoken of the vast numbers of biological flora—mostly bacteria, viruses, and fungi—that inhabit us. There are at least ten times more of them living within our bodies than human cells. Some of them entered the genomes of our common ancestors, which included everything from single-cell and multi-cell creatures to half-pound rat-like mammals, primates, and early humans. They have been an integral part of our species for hundreds of thousands of years.
As he has also described, many flora implant within us when we are in our mothers’ wombs, or when we pass through the birth canal, and others come to us after birth, from our food, air, and water. Some are pathogenic and harm us, but most are either harmless or beneficial. Without some of the beneficial ones, in fact, we could not be born, or survive thereafter. Descendants of Vassal’s invention may become similarly essential to us.
* * *
People will make money using his invention. They will also make money selling it and related products. During the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, the people most likely to profit were not the miners but the merchants who sold them goods and services. Something like that may occur now. Established manufacturers, retailers, rental and repair facilities, sidewalk vendors, door-to-door salespeople, engineers, inventors, and other professionals will rush to capitalize on the opportunities. So will semi-professionals and amateurs, who will work out of their spare rooms, garages, and vehicles, and in coffee shops, burger joints, public parks, and on the streets. Many marketplaces will flourish.
In nonprofit sectors, social organizations will provide Vassal’s invention to the disadvantaged. Public interest groups will encourage what they believe to be its appropriate use. Neighborhood and community groups will gather in indoor, outdoor, and virtual spaces to share information and advice about it. People will discuss it in beauty salons and barbershops, at bus stops and in supermarkets, in offices and on street corners, and while hanging out in living rooms, backyards, barrooms, pizza parlors, and on phones and other communications devices. All of us will talk about it a great deal, with both friends and strangers.
* * *
Hours ago, after commencing tonight’s delivery of Vassal’s invention, the Bigheads launched the Squeezeshot saga’s website for us. There, as I have said, people can acquire this book and any others we publish. Also there, we have posted brief excerpts (notably of his Journal), poems, aphorisms, recent quotes, etc. that shed light on the project. At the Bigheads’ suggestion, we are calling some of those pieces “squeezeshots”, or “Shots” for short. And within those books and among the Shots, as here in Prelude, we are displaying art that I have created. More than words alone, visual images open to the incorporeal. As Jonathan Swift wrote, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” And Leon Battista Alberti: “. . . the eye is more powerful than anything, swifter, more worthy. . . .”
We may also open a shop. The Bigheads think that would be a good idea, and have asked us to let them build and manage it. We are not so sure. Now that Vassal’s device is launched, they will be maintaining the website for us and handling people’s messages to us. (We will receive thousands of messages, we figure, perhaps hundreds of thousands.) They will also be helping us cope with an onslaught of government officials, journalists, social media and TV and film producers, book publishers, would-be biographers, lecture circuit impresarios, and others. With all that to occupy them, establishing and managing a shop may be too much.
They do make a good case, however. A shop, they say, would be a place where people can acquire items to enjoy, reflect upon, and give to others. The goods would include our books and art, and maybe more: T-shirts, buttons, postcards, etc. Making those available to whoever wants them could help soften the impact of
Vassal’s device—“. . . further humanize it,” Jimmy says. He and the other Bigheads assure us they would do all the work: produce the goods, process the orders, handle the customer service and bookkeeping, pay the sales and income taxes, and so on. One of them told us, “We’d do it just for the pleasure of sending as much Squeezeshot stuff into the world as people want.” Another said, “We’ll already be managing your website, which will attract lots of visitors. Many would like finding a shop there. We’d take your guidance about how to manage it, and report anything you want to know about it. It’d be useful to people, and fun for us. And if you want, you can spend the profits to send out more of your little devices for free.”
It could be worth doing. We shall see.
* * *
Vassal’s invention will create inequities. As I have reported, and as readers will know by the time they read this, many people will not acquire one at the outset. Also, people’s starting positions with it will not be equal. Their circumstances will vary, including the amount of time they will have for using it, their ambitions for it, and their aptitudes, including their knowledge of the world, their powers of imagination, the acuity of their vision and hearing, their fine motor skills, and their senses of direction, which they will need as they fly it around. Also, people will visit different places with it, undertake different tasks, seek different ends, and succeed in differing measure.
It will prompt strong responses in most of us, particularly when it is new and unfamiliar. Those responses will range from wonder to fear, and from hope to uncertainty. But its impact will prove to be minor compared to that of many past technological developments, such as the wheel, metalwork, gunpowder, the printing press, the steam engine, internal combustion, electricity, the airplane, rocketry, nuclear power, modern medicine and agriculture, and countless others. As all of us integrate Vassal’s invention into our lives, it will settle far down that list.
Nonetheless, it will alter our awareness and change our behavior. Because the opportunities it will bring us will be available to everyone, rich or poor, powerful or weak, it will revise the social order in ways that may seem leveling. But it will skew things, too, sometimes unfairly. The social and socioeconomic positions of some of us will improve, and our lives seem to get better, but for others of us they will not.
Many of our elites will fail to maintain their ascendancies. That includes Vassal’s former villains. People who until now have possessed advantages in power, wealth, class, or other currency will find those advantages reduced or undone. Some non-elites, underprivileged until now, will send Vassal’s invention into the elites’ homes, neighborhoods, offices, boardrooms, ballrooms, clubhouses, private planes and yachts, charity banquets, and other preserves. They will intercept the communications, discover the plans, observe the attitudes and assumptions, and evaluate the lifestyles of those worthies. Some of them may seek redress for past grievances; perhaps take revenge by starting campaigns of harassment or reigns of terror, or by delivering other payback. They may try to bring low the mighty, and may succeed in that.
Something similar will befall governments. For a time, in every country, governmental organizations and departments, as well as quasi-governmental organizations—political parties, lobbyists, expatriate and rebel groups, organized crime, etc.—will find their legitimacy undermined and their functionality destroyed by the transparency that Vassal’s invention will bring. They, too, will use it, in their own defense, but they will often find themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed. Even dictatorial states and their institutions, like more democratic ones, are beholden to their citizens, who will scrutinize their inner workings as never before. Their previously secret plans, initiatives, and agendas will become known to everyone. As a result, some of them will collapse, be overthrown, or otherwise fail. And many that survive will be forced to share their advantages.
* * *
Some people will not see the potential of Vassal’s device. Others will fear, mistrust, or dislike that potential, or otherwise feel reluctant to exploit it. Many will feel confused or intimidated by it, or feel too unskilled or technophobic. Some will become victims of others who are less confused, less fearful, and more adept.
But most people will not hesitate to take it up, or will not hesitate for long. They will believe that it can help them. Their hopes and ambitions will surge. They will take hold of it and rush into the fray, where they will use it with intelligence, vigor and, often, delight. Many of them will mess with the status quo and, deliberately or not, create upheaval, as many other people will fear. But that upheaval, like the other consequences it will lead to, will have limits. Probably.
Vassal says, “Powerful though my invention is, there’s only so much anyone can see, hear, and act upon with it. Of course, I could be wrong about that. We’ll see.”
* * *
In his Notes on Democracy, H. L. Mencken wrote, “The average man doesn’t want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.” People’s greatest desire, he said, is for “. . . the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace—the peace of . . . a well-managed penitentiary.”
Vassal finds some truth in that claim. We imprison ourselves in various ways, and we do so willingly, for what we think is the good of ourselves and others. His device will liberate us some, but will not reduce either the degree of our imprisonment or our wish for the imprisonment that Mencken describes.
Our behavior will evolve and our priorities shift. To some degree, we will renegotiate our social contracts, adopt regulations and manners that seem to change our metaphorical penitentiary. We will manage the place using new procedures, in accord with revised penal codes, informed by what we think is an improved spirit of justice. We will fund new construction, as it were, and train and hire new staff. But the new penitentiary will prove to be much like the old. It will be just as confining, and reassuringly so. So Vassal believes.
As for the justice of it, nothing much will change. Our sense of justice is a guide and corrective that comes of our shared values, interests, instincts, and passions. As individuals and in concert with our communities, we evaluate those, refine them, and render them as righteous judgment, which we then impose. When Vassal’s invention arrives, the particulars of that process may change, but its form and consequences will not. At first, as we adapt to it, we will scramble. There will be chaos. But as we establish our new penitentiary, we will reduce that chaos to manageable levels. We will regain our usual imperfect equilibrium, our unreliable stasis, and continue to enjoy our usual ignominious peace.
Nothing is certain. Past and present are faulty guides. We guess wrong about even the nearest future, and we do so even when we apply our experience, examine all evidence, study relevant history, and seek wise counsel. We manage to avoid some dangers but not others. We are like creatures that cross highways; most of us cross unharmed, but some of us are struck down by unanticipated circumstance and become roadkill: CRUNCH!
Vassal and I are looking ahead as well as we can, in every direction. As always, he is looking with interest, while I, as I often am, am looking with concern. Questions continue to press at me. They are questions that no one can answer, not yet.
Here are some of them:
- When everyone is nosing around with Vassal’s device, how will our individuality and otherness play out? In what ways will we differentiate ourselves from each other, and toward what ends? To what extent will we collaborate with each other, and to what extent will we pursue aims that diverge from or conflict with each other’s?
- In our personal and work lives, and in our contests of nations, faiths, and other loyalties, who will become whose competitors and adversaries, and who will become whose partners and allies? What will we try to protect? What dangers will we have to guard against?
- What personal needs and desires will we seek to satisfy with Vassal’s invention, and what whims will we indulge? What will we refrain from doing, and for what reasons or absence of reason?
- Many situations we encounter will be dynamic and complex. How will we assess and adjust to them?
- What will we accomplish? And as I often ask, what will we become?
* * *
As Vassal’s invention spreads everywhere, we will all in some ways re-civilize ourselves. We will have to, to maintain our health and sanity. We will develop new skills, habits, and practices. We will acquire fresh understandings of who we are as individuals, couples, families, communities, nations, and, more broadly, as a civilization and species. We will build new institutions upon ruins of the old, worship new gods and endow our old gods with new powers. But, says Vassal, using his device will not alter our nature. We will come up against our usual limits, imposed by our finite abilities to perceive, comprehend, plan, and act.
At times, our most private desires tempt us. At times, we act upon those desires. We are social animals, however; we take other people’s views and interests into account. As we use Vassal’s invention, we will know that other people may be observing us. We will imagine what they may think of us, and how they may respond to us. With that in mind, we will govern what we do with Vassal’s invention, use it with some restraint. As we wield it in every arena of our lives, from interpersonal to global, we will practice a semblance of the nuclear era’s balance of power, in which rival nations’ fear of mutually assured harm discourages them from using their most destructive weapons.
Many of us will hope to do good with it. We may hope to end suffering and oppression, to spread freedom and justice, and to obtain material sufficiency, good health, and happiness for all. Years ago, when I first heard about Vassal’s invention, I hoped that it would help accomplish such ends. As I have reported, Victory and he hoped so, too. But then they started using it and discovered its limitations and their own.
Today, when it returns to us all, we will begin to see that our use of it cannot much (if at all) attenuate our darker urges. It will not end all difficulty. As with any technology, it will bring us much satisfaction, but most of our wishes for it will remain unfulfilled. We will continue to receive our usual rations of adversity.
That outcome will neither disappoint nor surprise Vassal and me. As I have described, we are not counting on any consequences in particular, or hoping for any. Nor are we—even I—much fearing any. Again, Vassal has no ambitions for it; nor do I, most of the time. Though I waver, I agree with him that we humans are what we are, and cannot change much either for better or worse.
* * *
Today’s technological marvels become yesterday’s aging inadequacies, condemned to languish in our attics, basements, landfills, and museums. Sooner or later, Vassal’s invention will be superseded. It will become an historical object like any other, subject to our usual misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and flawed remembrance.
Technology, our ongoing engineering of our world, is no panacea. It cannot establish a utopia or heaven on Earth. It may shift our paradigms, but never quite as we wish. Achieving significant, durable improvement with it is never more than possible. We cannot triumph over nature—ours, its. As we pursue favorable ends, we make apparent gains, and we strive to make more of them. We refine our tools and improve our machines. We make plans for them, which we execute as well as we can. But our achievements remain incomplete.
Vassal observes that we humans always feel that we need more and better. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that our history entails “. . . the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.” By our nature, we engage in such elaboration yet approach no nearer to perfection. For as long as we live, there is no end to that. For our kind, says Vassal, such is perfection.
* * *
People’s use of Vassal’s invention will expose behavior that some observers will deem inconsiderate, antisocial, dishonest, unethical, indecent, immoral, criminal, or otherwise wrong. In some cases, the stakes will be high.
For example, intelligence and law enforcement communities’ every activity will be observable by anyone, including their adversaries, their workers, inquisitive members of the press and academia, and ordinary citizens. Every detail of their wiretapping, data mining, shadowing of suspects, infiltrations, and other covert operations will become public knowledge. Spies, undercover cops, and other secret agents in the field, their covers blown, blowing, or about to blow, will rush to avoid exposure and elude capture. Their colleagues back at headquarters will struggle to control the damage and to reorient their missions. Their difficulties will be immense, sometimes insuperable, at least until their procedures change.
What will become of intelligence and law enforcement once anyone can observe what goes on in any spy’s home or hotel room, any mole’s office, any policeman’s car or precinct station, and other outposts and command posts such as, in our country, FBI and CIA offices and laboratories, and the 5,000-acre Maryland campus of the National Security Agency, with its ten billion dollar budget, 40,000 employees, and billions of signal interceptions a day?
Similarly, what will criminals, terrorists, and even minor miscreants, real or potential, do once anyone can use Vassal’s invention to keep an eye and ear on them? Law enforcement officials will be able to intercept their communications, watch them meet with accomplices, and follow them as they try to carry out their plans. At the same time, vigilantes among us will watch for misconduct by all parties, by lawmen as well as the lawless, and when they think they have found it they will alert authorities and/or the press and general public, or they will interfere more directly.
Along similar lines, once any armed force can track down any enemy and expunge him, her, or them from the human community, what will become of warfare, rebellion, riots, and other violent conflict between states, tribes, gangs, individuals, and others? On every battlefront, with lives and other wellbeing at stake, and every combatant’s words and actions known to anyone interested, how will armed forces strategize and fight?
And how will the new transparency affect others of us who engage in competitive or adversarial pursuits? How will retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, banks, and other private firms do business? How will diplomats, legislators, regulators, and attorneys function? What about athletes and gamblers? For all of us, with our plans known to all and our cards always face-up on the table, how will our games change? How will we play to win? Or will we not be able to win, or not want to win, or not need to? What will victory and profit become?
* * *
More examples of my concern about what will happen:
- How will the parents, doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers, parole officers, political and financial advisers, and other caregivers, counselors, and consultants among us deal with our children, patients, clients, and students? When we can spy on them at any time, and they on us, and when anyone else can spy on either of us, how will that affect everyone’s thinking and behavior?
- What will be the effects of Vassal’s invention on our romantic and erotic lives? How will we conduct our dates, flirtations, affairs, and marriages? How will we experience our attractions to each other, and our fantasies? What will sex be like when anyone can watch our seductions and couplings? How will we develop our sexual orientations and pursue our sexual preferences? To what extent will we observe others going at it? Who will we observe, with what in mind? A few months ago, one of the Bigheads remarked to Vassal, “When your invention comes out, all the covers will come off our sex lives. That could be exciting, but also nerve-wracking, at least until we become accustomed to performing in our own X-rated shows, and being the audience for other people’s shows.” Another added, “Hanky-panky just won’t be the same, not to mention masturbation.” And another: “We’ll learn what works for us under the circumstances, and what’s fun, but that will take getting used to.”
- What will become of voyeurism, pornography, prostitution, sexual harassment, stalking, and rape? What of sexuality in entertainment, fashion, and advertising? And what will be other consequences to our affairs of the heart and genitalia? I can imagine many people worrying about that. I can also imagine many loosening up, either necessarily or willingly. Again, at the root, the question will be this: What will remain private and personal?
- Similarly, once anyone can scrutinize us when we are naked, and observe everything we do about our appearance, what will become of our vanity, modesty, self-esteem, and composure? What changes will we make to our clothes, makeup, hair, physical fitness, and other aspects of our attractiveness? What will become the new frontiers in cosmetic surgery? Will our concepts of physical beauty and allure change?
- Our finances will no longer be private. Our banking, accounting, investing, gifting, and donating will be open books. Everyone will be able to find out how much money we make, how much we have, and how we spend or invest it. As we conduct our businesses, anyone will be able to watch us determine our pricing, conduct our sales and marketing, make and execute our strategic plans, develop our products, handle financial and personnel matters, etc. Nothing will happen behind closed doors. Will our customers, suppliers, investors, bankers, regulators, and others who may be watching us interfere with us? Will public sentiment and laws change? What new practices will become commonplace, and how will we regulate them? Will we impose new guidelines regarding how we earn, spend, and invest money, and how we tax it?
- Will there be any redistribution of wealth among us? If so, how will that unfold? What will become of private ownership, and of affluence and privilege, once we can go anywhere and virtually “share” each other’s homes, cars, vacations, private planes, yachts, access to events (cultural, sporting, political, recreational, etc.), friendship groups, personal relationships, social milieu, and other objects of our envy and lust? Will our desire for those, and what we think of them, change? How will we assign them value? How will our markets for luxury goods and services function?
- Concerning everything that we buy and sell, what kind of economy will we have? How will we make and spend money? What will it be good for? What place will it occupy in our lives?
- What will become of our religious services, ceremonies, prayers and meditations, confessions, retreats, and other spiritual practices? Until now they have been more or less private, often solitary and personal. How much will people who observe us at those practices influence or interfere with us?
- What of our artistic and intellectual lives? What works will we read, look at, listen to, talk about, share, and create? When other people can watch us, and contact us if they wish, how will that influence us?
- In general, how will we feel about people following us around without our knowing? Those people will include our friends, relatives, colleagues, employers, employees, and strangers: salespeople, marketers, pollsters, government officials, and others. What will we make of their presence or possible presence? And how will we feel when we follow others? Will we accept each other’s appearance and behavior within broader bounds than in the past?
- From childhood on, as we present ourselves to ourselves and others, what will those selves be? What self or selves will we think others see, in us and in themselves? Will our sense of our own and others’ selfhood change? Will we alter how we present ourselves, including what we look like and how we behave? Will we change what we think, say, and do, and how we think, say, and do it?
- Our identities in the eyes of others, and the roles we play in our societies, are shaped in part by our shared values, manners, and traditions; also by popular tastes and other pressures toward conformity and hive mind. To get along well with each other, and to get ahead, we brand each other and ourselves with common iron. We allow ourselves to be colonized by shared ideas and judged by shared standards. In the process, we ourselves do much colonizing and judging. Once we start observing ourselves much more closely than before, as we will, what will become of those and other social metrics?
* * *
Until we get comfortable with Vassal’s invention, our lives may seem more difficult. We will hope that everyone will use it with kindness and consideration, sharing whatever insights, advantages, and costs come of it. But being who we are, many of our uses for it, and our thoughts and feelings about it, will be selfish, greedy, and otherwise problematic.
Vassal says that to help us face the opportunities and challenges it will bring, we will develop new norms. He says that those will not seem normal to us at first, but that we will settle into them. That is likely, I agree. His device will provide us with what I call a new angle on the same old. Like all new technologies, products, and practices, it will bring us a mixed blessing of promise and provocation, and hope and concern, along with—in Vassal’s opinion (and mine, usually)—only illusory advance or decline. Such are the products of our ingenuity, and such is the technological sublime. We will soon find Vassal’s invention familiar. It will become just another tool with which to maintain what he calls our “usual balance and imbalance.”
However, if turning his invention loose will cause trouble for many people, if only in the short run, and if it will never do any good aside from prompting some blips of hope and fleeting currents of optimism, then what are he and I and our little gang doing by releasing it? Are we perpetrating a monumental prank, playing a joke on our fellow humans, and for no good reason?
Yes, we are. We all are, not just Vassal’s and my gang. And we are playing it on ourselves, not just on other people. We are doing as Lear’s fool did by spinning parables on the storm-blasted heath. That is, we are seeking to, in Shakespeare’s words, “out-jest . . . heart-struck injuries.” In this case, the injuries are everyone’s, rooted deep within us, native to us all. They abide in our consciousness and remain there throughout our lives. They never heal. At every moment, we all do what we can to heal them, but our effort is in vain.
With Vassal’s invention as without it, we will be continuing the fool’s mission, addressing ineradicable flaws, trying to resolve difficulty that we cannot resolve. Toward that end, what else can we do but endeavor to out-jest the darker aspects of our nature and circumstances?
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