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The Four Walls of Our Skull

04/10/2021

Oddly, my time in the Army Special Forces made me an existentialist.  We were taught and practiced how to survive off-the-land.  We learned that civilization was merely a convenience, not a necessity.   We could move north or south, during daylight or darkness, as a “friendly” or as a “hostile.”  I didn’t appreciate how much it changed me until I left the Army, when I realized I could again be parachuted into a strange land and survive.  I was free . . . I was autonomous!

Existentialism has been called a celebration of aloneness.  We face life alone.  We face death alone.  We may cluster family and friends around us at times, such as death, but we are still alone.  To me, existentialism is more a celebration of autonomy.  We can be independent and free.

In today’s world of Facebook and Google, we routinely watch privacy being shredded, without even a whimper of complaint.  If you are nostalgic about privacy, it must be because you have a secret to hide, right?  Only perverts care about privacy?  What kind of pervert are you?  Words do matter!  It is not a mere loss of privacy.  It is a loss of autonomy . . . of independence.

In the current issue of Wired, there is a paragraph that says:  “A laser that can covertly identify you from two football fields away by measuring your heartbeat.  A hack that makes your smartphone spy on anything nearby with a Bluetooth connection, from your Fitbit to your smart refrigerator.  A computer vision system that will alert the authorities if you suddenly break into a run within sight of a CCTV camera.  But it’s a mistake to focus our dread on each of these tools individually.  In many places across the world, they’re all inputs for a system that, with each new plug-in, reaches a little closer to omniscience.”

 Artificial intelligence ties all these data bases together.  “Big brother” doesn’t even begin to explain the risk to your autonomy.  Facial recognition is simplistic.  Am I really autonomous if the computer knows where I’m going?  Am I really autonomous if the computer knows the identity of my friends?  Am I really autonomous if the computer knows the number of “key” words in my social media accounts and assumes it knows my beliefs?  Am I really autonomous?  Maybe in my head!

At first, I hoped our Federal government would protect us from control of our movements and the probing of our thoughts.  However, China is already busy implementing cradle-to-grave 24/7 surveillance of its people.  Does that give China some strategic or tactical advantage over America?  I don’t know, but we will continue to compete . . . just-in-case.

Ann Rynd’s iconic Atlas Shrugged toyed with the idea of capitalists and intellectuals self-disappearing until they were safe from the government.  Today, they would have to hide inside the four walls of their skull.

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