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The future is going to be weird, but at least Joelle Renstrom is here to explain it to us



  • Writer and academic Joelle Renstrom contemplates the implications of the singularity and suggests that the rise of machines will result in a personal erosion of purpose  and deepening sense of human isolation.
  • Renstrom suggests that it's important to consider emergent technological trends from a liberal arts perspective and consider the ways that the machines we create affect our minds. 

The technological singularity has a human ambassador in Boston University writing professor Joelle Renstrom.

Speaking at HubWeek, Boston’s weeklong festival on art, science, and innovation, Renstrom brought the radical rise of modern technology front and center, then asked the audience to think about what comes next. Owning a driverless car? Having sex with robots? “Hiring” machines to care for your kids or elderly family?

While these scenarios might sound a little silly at present, she illustrated that they are lurking just around the corner for all of us.

In 2011, Renstrom began publishing CouldThisHappen.com, a blog that picked apart science-fiction nuggets to get at their scientific truth and feasibility. She took a crack at good old-fashioned teleportation. She visited a California biohacking group to investigate their sight-enhancing eyedrops. When a "Star Wars" scene famously saw the characters navigate an asteroid field, she raised questions about how easily those asteroids could be mined for their resources.

“The only thing I've ever really wanted to be is a writer,” says Renstrom. She emerged from academia with a English and writing degree from the University of Michigan, then got a master’s degree in fiction from the University of British Columbia. “The science stuff happened because I've always been a big sci-fi nerd, but I have zero science background — I haven't taken a science class since, like, tenth grade, so that’s where my impostor syndrome kicks in.”

She says she started the blog as a way to pursue her interests “in a very low-stakes way,” but it didn’t stay low-stakes for long. Her break came in 2012 when Slate republished a post about if the earth’s rotation could slow down like it does in the dystopian novel Age of Miracles. This gave way to wider syndication at other publications, a gig writing about robots for The Daily Beast, and speaking engagements like HubWeek.

We are primed by movies and fiction to more readily buy into the idea that all-powerful machines will one day rise up to violently overthrow their human captors, but Renstrom isn’t buying it. Instead, she’s more interested in the existential implications of the singularity, holding up the modern smartphone as a symptom of this heavier diagnosis: Facebook takes the place of in-person communication, eye contact is replaced by staring at a screen, and we generally isolate ourselves while perpetuating the illusion of companionship.

To whatever extent the future holds real conflict between man and machine, she suggests this conflict will more likely erode human purpose and meaning, not end human lives.

When we connected a few days after her presentation, she disclosed that she was speaking to me on a 3G phone that's “about nine years old.” She doesn’t let her students have their phones in class, and in fact describes herself as “about as staunchly anti-smartphone as they come.” Her rationale for shunning the smartphone is the same as her rationale for not keeping junk food in the house — if she had a data-ready smartphone, she’d be “checking student emails and reading depressing news all the time.” Opting out from the get-go makes it a non-issue, but she acknowledges that opting out comes with problems.

“If you don’t use a smartphone, you're missing social opportunities, professional opportunities, and so on, so people think it's necessary to incorporate this technology into our lives even though it screws with us interpersonally, socially, and cognitively,” she says. “I don’t think we can possibly know everything it's doing to us, but I don't like what I see.”

The sentiment lines up with a quote about new media from Martin Amis’s Money: “Television is working on us. Film is. We’re not sure how yet. We wait, and count the symptoms. There’s a realism problem, we all know that. ‘TV is real!’ some people think. And where does that leave reality?”

Basically: the future’s going to be weird. Engineers can build powerful machines that change the way we work and live, but they can’t tell us how those machines will change our hearts and minds. To do so requires that we consider emergent technology from a liberal arts perspective. While that might be far outside the scope of a conventional scientific thinking, this is Renstrom’s home base.

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