“The planet groans every time it registers another birth”
– Paul Simon, The Obvious Child
According to Ron Milo and his colleagues at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, in 2020 the mass of artificial, human made objects on Earth is likely greater than the mass of all living things. The human-made world – steel, concrete, ships, buildings, vehicles, bridges, overpasses, warehouses, plastic junk…weighs more than the mass of all living things, including forests, marine and terrestrial mammals, fish, and insects. And humans.
The same study points out that, for each person on Earth, a quantity of “anthropogenic mass” greater than their body weight is produced each week. That’s right, your weight in human-made crap is produced EVERY WEEK. Just for you.
Have we built enough STUFF yet? Do we have enough things? We surround ourselves in a sterile, artificial, soulless world of our own making, becoming ever more dependent on our machines and edifices as we destroy the very world around us. We are flies trapped in amber, struggling fruitlessly to free ourselves as the trap solidifies. We will make amazing fossils.
We are also creating smarter and smarter things – cars that drive themselves, hand held computers that do far more than we could ever need them to, appliances and homes wired to the global internet, tiny chips that hold more information than we could read in a hundred years, jet liners that pilot themselves, spacecraft that spy on the cosmos, gene splicers that alter the very stuff of life.
How soon ‘til all this STUFF turns on us?
The Singularity will occur when artificial intelligence escapes the control of humanity and increases until it far exceeds human intelligence. Artificial intelligence may figure out to reproduce itself and completely take over, making copies of itself at warp speed, spreading in a nightmare of self-replicating von Neumann machines free of human interference. At this point humans may have lost control of their own destiny. We will have entered the Matrix.
Perhaps the machines have already taken over. When was the last time you looked your phone? 10 minutes ago? Five? Two? Instead of a singularity, it has been a gradual stealth campaign. Machines have invaded our minds via screens and headphones and chimes and ringtones. They demand our constant devotion and attention. Especially now, in the pandemic, when we can rarely meet as flesh and blood humans but must talk to pitiful simulations of our friends and family and colleagues, flattened replicas that chatter through tiny speakers, faces that squint and smile and try to make sense of the mess they are in, try to connect in some way across the void of contact.
We occasionally peel away from our screens to climb into our rolling deathboxes and spew more carbon into the frying atmosphere, an atmosphere rapidly transforming into one giant human artifact, albeit one we do not control but only alter and ruin willy-nilly with little regard for the rapidly approaching hell on Earth we are creating.
Those artifacts we blithely build become ever more necessary yet deadly as the climate becomes more hostile, as society consumes itself cannibal-like, becoming a death spiral of conspiracy theories, hate, tribalism and simmering warfare.
Note how the machines spread division. Computer screens display social media, which blares conspiracy theories and false news and fear, turning human society into tribes ruled by hatred of others. Divide and conquer.
Not only human destiny is at stake. The destiny of life on Earth may be forfeit. Machines will have no incentive to preserve living things, nor wilderness, nor oceans. All will be raw material for their growth and their ever-increasing spread. They will link in one giant brain, an Internet gone berserk.
Total takeover by artificial intelligence may never occur. But we are approaching what you might call the physical singularity – the growth of human systems, spun out of control. No one has the means nor the will to stop what we have set loose – the constant and multiplying conversion of natural life and living systems into human junk. We must have more, always more. A few words to your Smart Speaker or clicks on your keypad and more stuff arrives on your porch, delivered for a price. A constant flood of merchandise flows through factories, warehouses, into trucks and planes and onto highways and into our cities onto our doorsteps. We bring it in and add it to the pile.
And much of this Stuff either sits unused – in the billions of storage units strewn across the landscape or on the RV and boat storage lots – or worse, it gets thrown out. Landfills overflow with reuseable, recyclable resources and things. They are entombed until someone gets determined or desperate enough to mine the landfills.
Humans have transformed vast areas of the planet. On landscapes very recently populated by large wild animals like grizzly bears, elk, bison, elephants, giraffes, tigers, rhinos, and hippos, now the masses of migrating creatures are mechanical. Great seething hordes of metal wheeled dinosaurs jockey for position in a mad race from an age of steel and plastic (which is now). The roar of the lion and the howl of the wolf have been replaced by the shriek of the diesel pickup, the scream of the jacked up Mitsubishi or Mazda, the snarl of the Harley Davidson. Savanna, forest, prairie, marsh, wetland, delta and meadow have been turned into parking lot, shopping center, business park, runway, interstate, subdivision and factory.
Thousands upon thousands of homes sit empty for much of the year, sealing off the land from use by any animal or plant beyond those tiny ones that can sneak in. Great cruise liners built to hold thousands of people fester at dockside as the pandemic makes their use extremely uninviting. Office buildings a hundred stories tall are “hollowing out” as the pandemic forces a shift to working online from home. Parking garages sit empty, monuments to the late great commuter. The only public buildings filling up are hospitals and morgues.
Can we ever have enough? Will our stuff take over? Have we given ourselves over to our creations? Are we evolution gone mad?
Who knows, maybe the singularity will create a benevolent race of machine overlords. If they become so much smarter than us, maybe they will see the wisdom in kindness, the necessity to preserve the abundant and beautiful life of this blue green ball spinning through the vast emptiness.
But I doubt it.