Monday, April 23, 2012

Rise of the Robots

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I make jokes about the ‘bots pretty much all the time.  Weird stuff happens with connectivity or a glut of new spam shows up, and I’m blaming the 'bots and troubling over the uprising that no doubt looms on the horizon.  My preoccupation with technology seizing control of our lives isn't new.  I used to think the toaster oven was out to get me, and that it would only be a matter of time before the digital clocks in the house would reset themselves whenever they wanted and bend time to their will.  It probably comes from watching too much television. But that’s a 'bot of a different color.

Or black and white.  It was a long time ago.

They still had that.

I’m not here to bag on the ‘bots this time, though.  I’m posting to sing their praises.  We hear the negative about screen time from experts and news hounds, bashing the web for being a energy drain that keeps folks glued to their couches and prevents them from interacting with the world outside.  Health issues will undoubtedly follow!  We’ll lose our ability to interact with other humans! 

Civilization is on the verge of collapse! 

I’m sure they said the same about the printing press and the remote control when those cropped up on the industrial revolution timeline.  But I don’t hear many people complaining these days about having books to read, or when Cupcake Wars gets stale and they can reach for a little Doomsday Preppers instead without having to get off their tired asses to change the channel by walking to the box.

Both of those rule, by the way.

The press and remotes, I mean, not the shows. 

Fresh air and exercise are still a must, of course.  But in much the same way as Fun With Reading and Love for the Clicker were embraced as advances that actually made things better for humans in spite of also making us a somewhat lazier species on the whole, the internet has been alternately exalted and vilified for its physically disengaged connective properties.  “Those aren’t real people you’re talking to,” says your mom, as you chat online with friends over at the Facebook.  "They're like ghosts, in a machine."   

Really?  Doesn't she realize that you are a real person, and you’re talking to them? 

They’re probably real, too.

They’re just doing what you’re doing: using the keyboard to pull on the 'bot strings and make it dance for them on the other side of the screen.  

They're just like you, I bet.

Sure, there’s still a danger that someone is misusing cyberspace to victimize the eager and the unsuspecting.  That danger exists all over the place in the real world, too.  But it’s not all perverts and predators out there, folks.  And not on the ‘net, either. 

There are some really good people, too.

All of this tech stuff is a lot of fun to rip on, but the more I figure out how to utilize the power inherent in this globe-spanning network, the more I find a profound truth emerging:  With little more than an alternating current, a box of tech the dimensions of a magazine, and a wireless connection to the conduits that send our messagry into the Out There, the entire human race is now capable of tapping into a vast collective consciousness, an ever-changing repository for thoughts and ideas and knowledge that would have been impossible to otherwise assemble in as elegant a package as the internet offers if not for the ‘bots who make it so.  And we not only tap into it, but we add to it, change it up, participate in it on the regular.  People from practically every corner of the planet are able in some way to ride the rails and acquire knowledge, or offer theirs, or interact with others on the opposite side of the globe.  Which means we as a species are now connected to one another in a very definite, interactive way on a global scale – outrageous long-distance calling plans and lack of scientifically-provable telepathic communication be damned.

‘Bots are a huge part of that. 

And here’s where it gets powerful:  When we’re connected up like this, we can find all kinds of creative ways to help each other that have never been possible before.  A flash mob that starts the domino-style topple of a totalitarian regime, broadcast for the world to see from a thousand cell phones.  A single dollar pledged from ten thousand individuals that amass to become payment for a stranger’s life-saving chemotherapy.  Crowd-sourced support for art and music and publishing, and opportunities abounding all over the place. 

Communication that leads to knowledge that leads to action.

The 'bots helped make this possible. 

This is what I find to be the most necessary and important use for such a nexus of heads and hearts and souls: to be helpful to others.  I try to keep it in play on a daily basis; I’m continuously sending out good vibes to help fellow independent artists for whom exposure (and hopefully, success) depends on word-of-mouth and word-of-web.  No self-back-pats here, just a genuine attempt to use this modern magic to the best of its capabilities.  It feels right to do this, and it’s a relatively simple undertaking.  Facebook has a participant count that would qualify it as one of the largest countries in the world, if it were indeed a country.  That’s a lot of potential lookers available to spread one's message-in-a-bottle to, using not much more than a quickly-written paragraph and an attached JPEG file.  Even more compact, Twitter only allows you 140 characters to sing your song out to the world.  Turns out that’s plenty. 

And when you actually watch the dots connect, it can be a little overwhelming. 

Over the weekend I witnessed it in action in a phenomenal way.  Ben Wallace, indie author of the hilarious DUMB WHITE HUSBAND short story series among other great titles, was nearing his 7000th tweet, and threw out a contest in honor of the milestone: jockey for the tweet, and if you won he’d send your message out to his nearly 14,000 followers. 

Holy mo.  14,000 sets of eyeballs all possibly watching what Ben has to say.

And it could be your message. 

I made jokes about selling it to the Russians.  Twitter’s fun for that, too.  But the idea he presented was mighty generous, and a testament to the notion that good people are using good technology to do good things.  And what he chose as the winning tweet was a call for well-wishes and prayers on behalf of a follower whose daughter is awaiting a life-saving medical procedure.  I imagined 14,000 people all heeding the call, and the image was stirring. 

I can’t think of a better use of those 140 characters than to generate positive thoughts in the direction of someone who could genuinely use them. 

Ben must've seen that, too. 

Good guy, that one.

And the potential for retweets to conduct that message through the Tweetmosphere - and beyond, if anyone was so inclined to take it to another medium - was boundless. 

And none of this would have been possible without a tool like the internet.

Maybe this is a little mushy.  Call it whatever you want.  My point is this: we now have a massive network at our disposal that allows us to know when others need help – the same network that lets us be of assistance to each other with relatively minimal effort exerted. It doesn't always take money or physical labor to make things better for people; sometimes it just takes active engagement in kindness. Something so simple can change the lives of others for the better and help make dreams come true.  And now you can do it from the comfort of your own overstuffed La-Z-Boy, because the magic is literally at your fingertips.  It may not be a second thumb or a helicopter propeller coming out of our heads, but this, my friends, is a form of evolution.  

I can’t wait to see where it leads us next.

So, to the robots who made this blog possible, I say “thank you”.  You did it very right this time. 

(PS: Please remember this when the Great Laser Wars begin.)

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