Volume 33 Number 5
[Don't Get Me Started]
By David Platt | May 2018
If you read the Editor’s Note in last month’s MSDN Magazine, you know that April was the 100th issue of this column. To begin my second century in this space, I’ve decided to tackle nothing more nor less profound than the final destination of the human species, and your and my roles in it.
I’ve written many times about the complete reshaping of society within the last decade due to the ubiquity of smartphones. People can’t put them down (February 2012, msdn.com/magazine/hh781031). I feel mine ringing even when it isn’t (November 2016, msdn.com/magazine/mt788629). They’re even guiding human evolution by killing off the users too stupid to refrain from taking selfies in front of speeding trains (September 2015, msdn.com/magazine/mt422590). Kids today are practically born with them in hand, using them at the earliest of ages, while their brains are still plastic (June 2015, msdn.com/magazine/mt147245). This last generation I named digital symbionts, and I wondered where this early influence was going to take us.
Here’s my first data point, from David M. Markowitz and Jeffrey T. Hancock (see slate.me/2uacSfa). They studied patients undergoing surgery with a regional anesthetic, allowing some subjects to access their phones in the recovery room, where it’s usually forbidden. These patients felt better when they could use their phones. No surprise there—I like to play Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” while I’m getting Novocain at the dentist.
But it’s not just having the phones that made the difference, it’s what the users did with them. As the authors note (my emphasis added): “The patients who could not use their phones were six times more likely to require powerful opioids to get through the procedure than those who could communicate by text message with another person. And this wasn’t simply about distraction. Patients using the phones to communicate needed fewer opioids than patients playing Angry Birds.”
We humans are social animals. Being ostracized, cut off from the tribe, is the ultimate punishment. I initially regarded someone using a phone as cutting themselves off from humanity, as they ignore the people physically near them. Now I see these devices as facilitating the tighter connection of humanity—connecting our consciousnesses into a critical mass, like atoms in a sphere of imploding plutonium. Where will this end?
For a glimpse at our future, I look to Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 masterpiece, “Childhood’s End”—the best science fiction novel ever written, or that ever will be. I read it to Annabelle when she was 11 years old, at the end of her childhood, the last book we read together. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read it yet, put this magazine down right now, buy it online and read it. I mean it.)
In the not-terribly-distant future (Clarke set it in the mid-1970s), Earth is taken over by the Overlords, a technologically advanced species from a distant star. They disarm humankind, preventing us from wiping ourselves out with nuclear weapons. After about 150 years of their benign dictatorship, humanity evolves, rather suddenly, into a powerful group mind. We discover that this change was what the Overlords came to Earth to facilitate. But the change only affects children younger than 10. As their minds coalesce and gain exponential power, their bodies have to be segregated even from their own parents, for the protection of both. The poignancy of the scene, as the no-longer-children enter the Overlords’ ships, leaving the remainder of humanity bereft—I can’t touch it. You’ll have to read it yourself.
As Overlord Supervisor Karellen says, in his last speech to humanity: “… [T]hey will not possess minds as you know them. They will be a single entity, as you yourselves are the sums of your myriad cells. You will not think them human, and you will be right.”
You probably aren’t considering this evolution as you write your mobile apps—I didn’t when I wrote my commuter rail schedule, or even Zak’s mother’s weight tracker. But where is this is all leading? Here’s Karellen’s conclusion, to the unchanged, unchangeable, grieving adults:
“… [W]hat you will have brought into the world may be utterly alien, it may share none of your desires or hopes, it may look upon your greatest achievements as childish toys—yet it is something wonderful, and you will have created it.”
Have we started this, my friends, you and I?
While we wait for the singularity, there are things to be done. You can find me later this month at Microsoft Build, where I’d love to hear your thoughts on life, the industry and this column. And if you happen to be in Greece on June 11, I’m keynoting the DEVit conference in Thessaloniki (devitconf.org). The topic, naturally, is the debut of my upcoming book, “Why Software Still Sucks.”
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.