One only needs to view popular film and television over the last few decades to see one of the predominant fears of our collective humanity. In The Matrix, we were enslaved by the machines to provide them with energy. In the Terminator series, the machines wanted to destroy us entirely. In I, Robot, the machines which served us then turned against us. And in the likes of Humans and Ex Machina, our very notion of what is and isn’t human was challenged as we were presented with a future where humans and AI are virtually indistinguishable from each other.
But far from being a potential future reality, I think the machines have already enslaved us. As we egocentrically wait for the time when artificial intelligence is created in our own magnificent image before believe the age of the machines is really here, an army of rectangular computing devices connected to powerful algorithms already has most of us largely trapped. How? By capturing our attention and drowning us in distraction and the reflections of ourselves in shallow pools. We were expecting robots. Instead, the machines deployed selfie cameras and algorithms.
I remember the time when we all wondered when computing power would eventually exceed the power of the human brain. When you could go away and make a cup of coffee while you waited for your modem to connect, that future felt quite distant. But in a relative blink of the eye, even the smallest of devices can now seemingly out-compute the average human brain. Turn a computer on and it is instantly connected, practically at full capacity, and will run at this capacity until you turn it off again.
Machine energy is largely binary. It’s either on or off. Most can run multiple tasks, applications, and computations with ease. No coffee, food, toilet break required. No pausing part way through their tasks to quickly check in on Facebook. No feeling upset because that photo of their paleo dinner attracted some hate-filled comments from vegans. Machine capacity is enormous. Machine capacity is unrelenting.
You, however, I am assuming, are a human being. Your energy and capacity doesn’t have an on or off switch. Rather, it is variable, ebbing and flowing in cycles across the day, and across the seasons of the year. You can rapidly task switch (with a high cost to your mental energy and focus) rather than truly multitask. You energy cycles from low to high and back to low at roughly 90-minute intervals across the day (more on this in future entries). You will know this to be true because you’ll perhaps be dragging your feet early in the day, feel like you are charging along by mid-morning, feel like a nap after lunch, and will get your second wind late in the day.
Whether by accident or by design, we find ourselves attempting to match the capacity of the machines in our workplaces. As soon as they are on and at full capacity, we are expected to be on and at full capacity. They can multitask, so we attempt to multitask with them. As fast as they can throw notifications at us, we try to deal with them. They don’t need a break, so we skip ours in order to keep up. When we do leave our desk, they come with us, continuing the barrage of notifications in our pockets, in our cars, and in our homes.
Rarely, if ever, do we give any consideration to the fact that they have a singular and relatively constant energy source, whereas we mere humans do not. But then a strange thing happens if the machine energy source is ever under threat. It is the human which goes into panic. Witness the desperation to find a power source when someone’s phone or laptop battery is under 15-20%. Low battery anxiety disorder is a real thing.
In a nod to The Matrix and the notion of humans providing energy to machines, we ensure that all of our devices are routinely recharged and near maximum energy capacity at all times. Yet we also routinely fail to do this for ourselves. Our physical energy requires good restorative sleep and regular nourishing meals. The capacity of our cellular batteries – our mitochondria – is increased through regular movement (and conversely, decreased by extended periods of inactivity such as sitting in a chair all day).
Our emotional energy, affected by the same physical energy sources, also requires that we spend time with loved ones and receive recognition and support for what we do. To recover our mental focus energy, we need time and space free of distraction, space to let our minds wander, and the ability to think about and attend to singular problems deeply rather than scattering ourselves with continuous partial attention. Our longer term energy source, the one which drives us to keep going even when the other sources might be at a low ebb, is fuelled by having a sense of purpose. It is the energy we get from fulfilling our passions and from our acts in service to something bigger than ourselves.
But something keeps getting in the way of our ability to recharge our own energy sources. If we take sleep for example, I can tell you that one of the most common sleep disruptors is the blue light emitted from our phone and computer screens – our machines – which we insist on attending to right up until bedtime. Worse, we take these machines to bed with us and remain on them when we can’t fall asleep, or go back on them should we awaken (or they awaken us) in the night. With both our sleep quality and quantity diminished, we are already behind the eight-ball for our physical, emotional, and mental energy the next day.
Being tired and low on energy (but likely already channeling what little energy we have back to our machines), we might skip breakfast, opting to grab something later in the morning which will (temporarily) boost our energy, or if we do grab breakfast, it is something quick and highly-processed, perhaps offering a quick sugar hit, but almost certain to leave us tired and hangry by mid-morning. This sense of fatigue and low energy also causes us to feel stressed and under pressure, feelings which insidiously eat away at our emotional energy. Such senses of urgency are likely to see us not take much in the way of breaks during the day. If we do get the chance to spend time with a real human with whom we have a strong social bond, and who, on any other day, might be a source of emotional energy for us, we are so frazzled and distracted that we spend all of our time in their presence being absent; mindlessly scrolling through our phone (giving complete strangers your heart but nothing to the real human sitting opposite).
Given that we seemingly care more about the energy state of our machines than ourselves, and that we are so connected to them as to be distracted from our own personal needs (as well as the needs of others around us), perhaps we need to ask if the machines haven’t already taken over? If they haven’t yet taken our jobs, they’ve most certainly taken our attention, our focus, our love, and our energy.
Now how do we get it all back?