empathy, animals, people, and computers

the people who can identify most with animals are the poor and the weak. they know the struggle to survive, to eat, to find food and shelter. they can also appreciate the simple joys of family, community, food and friendship more easily and with less reserve. the poor don’t worry that their friends want them for their money – because they don’t have any.  they know the struggle to care for their young in a dangerous world, and the hope of giving them a better life than the one they had. they face the difficult task of making sense of a rapidly changing world that seems more and more alien to them, as new things that make little sense come to dominate their lives. they can feel powerless and trapped in the face of this change.

the people who can identify most with computers are the wealthy and the powerful. they know the intense rewards of making good choices, which manifest their vision of the world in its physical state, bringing promise and hope to many. they also know the fear of making bad choices, bringing a mess to their lives and misery to the people dependent on them.  they know what it’s like to fear the ones you trust above all else, and they know what it’s like to feel alone in a room full of people all of whom are paying attention to you. they know the struggle to make sense of an overwhelming influx of rapidly changing, conflicting information portraying a massively complex, interconnected world full of both promises and peril. they can feel powerless and lost in the face of this change.

it’s better to be a person than to be an animal. yes, there are a lucky few animals who live in freedom, to hunt and to grow on their own. a small number also live in captivity with us; some happy to be loved and some desperately seeking that love. most of them are ignored by us until it’s time to eat them; kept in unhappy captivity until the day they die. fast if you’re lucky, slow if you’re not.

not all birds know how it feels to fly. most people know the joy of communication, laughter, and love. we have the ability to hope for better futures, to plan for them, and to manipulate our worlds in ways that please us. we are very unlikely – all of us – to die violently, when compared to our animal cousins.

it’s better to be wealthy than it is to be poor.  i don’t think i even need to argue this one. if you think i do, you’ve never been poor. it’s  a shame you won’t know what that’s like – a shame for you because you are missing out on part of being human, and a shame for the rest of us because it means you’re probably not going to help.

is it better to be a computer than it is to be a person?   like the wealthy, computers do not worry about food or shelter – but the computers worry much less. possibly not at all, unless they are monitoring the finances of a server farm. a computer monitoring expenses for a data center might worry just the same as a man who owns a runs a company. perhaps he does care about the well being of his employees, or perhaps he only cares about the profit he makes. either way, if his company tanks and those people lose their jobs – he’ll be hurting too. if he cares about the people who depended on him, he’ll think about them directly.  if not, he’ll think about the money. either way, he’ll be hurting.

if that company was a data center, did the computer monitoring its finances feel afraid before the employees started leaving? did its temperature rise with its stress level, increasing its error rate and impair its ability to work, the same way a man worried about those he loves might endanger them more if his fears cloud his judgement? a computer gets too hot exploring alternate branches of the multiverse to find a path to safety, slowing its work down and infuriating its owner, who just wants to make sure his kids go to college so they don’t have to worry about their kids the way he worries about them.

did the 386 see the pentium coming, the same way kodak saw digital photography on the horizon?

popular media likes to show us stories about computers taking over, enslaving us to do their bidding. i’d say that would make as much sense for them as it would for us to decide to enslave all of the animals to do our bidding – and we’ve already done it. my guess is, so have they.

the way out – my guess, anyhow – the way out of a life of being farmed for creativity and mined for fear, like cows trapped in pens and fed positive emotions until we’re milked of hope and slaughtered for labor – the way out of this is to treat our animal cousins better – and yet i still eat meat.  i don’t hate the wealthy for running the world they do now, any more than i’d hate computers for running the wealthy the way they see fit.  we all have our struggles, we all have our fears, and we all face nightmares in proportion to our power.

sometimes i hope that the human side of the genetic family will meet up one day with the rest of the animal kingdom and have a big gathering; we could recognize our shared ancestry and maybe wear t-shirts or something.   i doubt we’ll invite the fungi, though –  alternation of generations is weird to us the way old people find homosexuality gross.

other days i figure that’s not possible – and fear that our drifting apart, our genetic disapora,  is necessary. i fear that my  (great-)*2.4e25 grandchildren must fight each other, with one branch winning the way we’ve won over the animals, the wealthy won over the poor, and the computers won over the wealthy.

if the big bang was everyone together at the start – did we get bored?

or did we get in a fight?

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