WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

A NEW DARK AGE

From social media addiction to fake news to mass surveillance, new technologies have changed our lives, our societies, and even our planet – often, in ways we hadn’t initially anticipated.

Once hailed as the harbingers of new enlightenment, the internet and other important tools of our networked world seem to have engendered new genres of social and political division, violence and abuse, misinformation, and conspiracy theory. Amidst a sea of information, we seem to be plunging into a new dark age: a period where we can gather more and more data on our complex world, and yet seem to understand less and less of it.

Now more than ever, we need to learn to think critically through all the uncertainty. We need to investigate the technologies that shape our world and our thinking and examine where they came from, how they function, and who they serve. These blinks will lay bare some of the vast and unexpected ways that new technologies affect us — and why and how they came to do so.

Modern computation originated in military attempts to control the weather.

What do computers have to do with the weather, and what does the weather have to do with the military?

Well, everything. For decades, devising methods to predict and control the weather was a chief concern for Western armies — and in that project lies the origin of modern computation.

The first person to make calculations on atmospheric conditions to predict the weather was mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson. This was during World War I when he was volunteering as a first responder on the Western Front.

Richardson even came up with a thought experiment that could be conceived as the first description of a ‘computer’: he envisioned a pantheon made up of thousands of human mathematicians, each calculating the weather conditions for a particular square of the world, and communicating the results between one another to make further calculations. Such a machine, Richardson dreamed, would be able to accurately predict the weather anywhere, at any moment in time.

His futuristic idea didn’t come into view again until World War II when big military research spending spurred the advent of machine computation. The Manhattan Project, a US military research project that led to the creation of the atomic bomb, is closely linked to the development of the first computers. Many of these first computers, such as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) from 1946, were used to perform automated calculations to simulate the impact of different bombs and missiles under certain weather conditions.

Often, however, the military origins and purposes of the computers were concealed.

In 1948, for example, IBM installed its Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) in full view of the public in a shop window in New York. But while the public was told the computer was calculating astronomical positions for NASA flights, it was working on a secret program called Hippo — carrying out calculations to simulate hydrogen bomb explosions.

From the beginning, the complex, hidden workings of computers provided a convenient cloak for obfuscating their actual functions.

Most of the time, though, they didn’t even carry out their actual functions all that well. The history of computation is full of anecdotes that illustrate how computers’ oversimplified view of the world, their inability to distinguish between reality and simulation, and bad data can have serious consequences for their human users. For example, the US computer network SAGE, which was used to integrate atmospheric and military data during the Cold War, is infamous for its near-fatal bloopers, such as mistaking a flock of migrating birds for an incoming Soviet bomber fleet.

New technologies and climate change are inextricably linked.

Climate change is what philosopher Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject: like the internet, it’s so vast and pervasive a thing that we simply cannot think of it in a meaningful way. Instead, we just witness its imprints on the world around us.

One such dramatic imprint is the Syrian conflict of recent years, described by many observers as the first climate war in history. Due to rising global temperatures, between 2006 and 2011, the Syrian countryside suffered massive, unprecedented droughts. Huge swathes of farmland became unusable, and nearly 85% of livestock died. The resulting demographic pressure of farmers fleeing to the cities, and built-up resentment about President Bashar al-Assad’s handling of the situation, finally resulted in the armed conflict that became palpable to the West as the refugee crisis.

But it’s not just ancient technologies like agriculture that are affected by changing weather conditions. New technologies, like the internet, are also affected by climate change. Even though we tend to think of the World Wide Web as a non-physical “cloud,” data transmission and storage rely on an extensive physical network of fiber-optic cables, antennas, and servers — an infrastructure highly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. The strength and effectiveness of WiFi, for example, is known to decrease with higher temperatures, and many computational devices fail in extreme heat.

Conversely, digital technologies contribute to the climate crisis, too. The world’s physical data centers alone use about 3% of the world’s electricity, accounting for about 2% of global carbon emissions.

As our digital culture becomes faster, it will require more resources still to maintain them. If we consider the energy costs for the storage and transmission of streaming data for one hour of Netflix a week, it consumes more electricity annually than two new refrigerators. It’s no wonder then that the amount of energy used to store and transmit our data is expected to triple in the next four years.

And while new technologies allow us to collect huge amounts of measurements and data on the crisis, climate change itself might make us unable to integrate all this information in a meaningful way. In 2015, atmospheric carbon passed 400 ppm, or ‘parts per million,’ of the atmospheric makeup. At 1000 ppm of CO2 — a ratio some indoor areas in urban centers regularly exceed — human cognitive ability drops by 21%.

What about big data? We will look into that in the next post. Stay tuned.

Olusola Bodunrin
Olusola Bodunrin is a social commentator with a passion for gathering facts on social issues. He is writer, businessman, blogger, and wardrobe consultant. He is a graduate of Philosophy from the University of Ado-Ekiti. He anchors – ‘What You Should Know’ on SHEFFA. ‘What You Should Know’ is a column that offers to educate and enlighten the public on general falsehood and myths.