What’s Controlling You?

What’s Controlling You?


Johnny B. Truant is an author, blogger, and podcaster who, like the Ramones, was long denied induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite having a large cult following. Follow him on Twitter @johnnybtruant

Latest posts by Johnny (see all)

MindsetI once competed in an Olympic triathlon. Then, over the next 60 days, I followed with a cycle century, a half-ironman triathlon, and a marathon.

When he was 20, Sean trimmed his body fat to 8%.

In high school, I memorized Edgar Allan Poe’s, The Raven. It wasn’t for a school assignment. I just did it.

Sean memorized every word of The Marshal Mathers LP.

Every day, I fast until dinnertime.

Sean hasn’t had a gram of sugar through February’s 28 days since 1999.

And in the last quarter of 2013, Sean and I wrote and published every single one of the books Realm & Sands had originally planned to complete for the year … before deciding to add Write. Publish. Repeat. and a few other projects to our plate.

That meant writing nearly a half-million words in three months.

There was no deadline, other than the one we arbitrarily decided to set for ourselves, but we both knew we had to meet it anyway.

I’m not telling you these things to plant a flag in our awesome. I’m telling you because I’m haunted by a need to prove that at the end of the day, we control ourselves.

That sounds simple, but it isn’t. Humans do a tremendous job of dressing in smiles and civilized clothing, but we started as animals … and sometimes I wonder if we’ve really come that far.

Are we truly in control? Or are we jerked about like a marionette from strings we can’t see?


The Rat and the Lever 

In the 1950s, scientists James Olds and Peter Milner did an experiment wherein they inserted electrodes into rat brains to stimulate the limbic system — what’s since become known as the brain’s “pleasure center.” Rats were able to press levers to activate the electrodes, thus stimulating their own brains in a way that felt good.

The rats rather enjoyed this small side benefit of being in their cages, and pretty much sat on the levers, often pressing them around 700 times per hour.

The rats were so preoccupied with delivering pleasure that they preferred to self-stimulate rather than eating or drinking, and eventually died of exhaustion.

I’ll pick up my iPhone every few minutes when idle, to check and see if I have new email. I usually don’t answer; I just want to see if it’s there and give it a read. The eggheads say I’m getting a dopamine hit in my brain, and the burst of pleasure that follows.

So many of us are living our lives like rats pressing levers.

We’re being trained, both overtly and accidentally. If your phone gives you audible alerts for fresh mail, it’s training you to respond like Pavlov’s drooling dogs to ringing bells.

Every time we get something fast or something’s made easy, we’re trained to believe that all desire should be instantly satisfied, that there’s no need to wait for gratification.

Have you ever gotten angry that your Internet is slow?

Have you ever been annoyed when you can’t watch a movie on demand?

Does it feel like a crisis when the power goes out for more than a few hours?

When those things happen, do you think about how amazing it is to have the Internet, to have movies at your fingertips, or to be able to flip a switch and banish the shadows? Or do you instead think about what you believe you’re entitled to, but aren’t being given?

It’s not really about entitlement. It’s about stimulus and response. Habituation. Conditioning. If we’re all being conditioned — by ourselves, by our circumstances, and deliberately by marketers (not to mention game makers who actually study the art of creating addiction) — then are we losing the ability to retain control of ourselves?

We don’t practice deliberate acts of discipline and self-denial because we’re trying to be awesome. We know willpower is like a muscle: if it isn’t challenged, we might lose the use of it.

Rat in a CageIf we lose the ability to deny ourselves pleasure, we might starve our lives to nothing while we continue to press that lever like a rat wasting its existence in a cold corner of our self-inflicted cage.

I Want it ALL, and I Want it NOW

When Sean pitched me on the idea of writing our serial The Beam, I was mediocre on the idea. For one, he pitched it as theBEAM, all run together like that, and explained that the only capitalized words in his 2097 story world were “Noah West,” father of the Beam network. In its original conception, the story had a lexicon complicated enough to require a glossary. But it wasn’t the wording conventions that threw me so much as what they seemed to imply: that this world would be all buttons, gizmos and whiz-bang glitz, which is exactly what I never liked about a lot of sci-fi.

When we finally started writing The Beam — and eliminated those original linguistic doodads — I remember calling Sean and asking him if it was cool that the story didn’t seem especially “futurey.” The characters I’d created from his wireframes were, really, just people. Yes, Micah and Isaac Ryan looked 30 despite being in their 80s thanks to nanobot treatments, and yes, prostitute assassin Kai Dreyfuss had an artificial implant in her eye … but beyond that, they mostly looked, spoke, and behaved as we would today. We added a few hovering cars because that’s what you do in sci-fi, but people also walked and wrote on paper, and temperamental wives still threw heavy objects at their do-nothing husbands when they were being assholes.

It was fine that The Beam wasn’t all lasers and knobs because another term for sci-fi is “speculative fiction” — or, as we started to call it, “future history.” Our job wasn’t to fill the world with flashing lights and jetpacks. Our job was to predict — to speculate — about what might happen in the future, given what we know today.

And what did we know about our world of today?

We knew that people love their gadgets.

We knew that the world is obsessed with having more and more information at its fingertips.

We knew that first-world nations were spoiled; too many people thought more about what technology could give them next than what it already had.

We knew that in those same first-world nations, all but the poorest of the poor would stop paying rent before they’d stop paying their cell phone bills.

We knew that humanity’s dream could increasingly be summed up in a sentence: I want access to everything, everywhere, at all times.

Addicted to Tech So that’s what we gave our characters. In the world of The Beam (and in greater detail in its companion piece Plugged), network connectivity expanded and humanity increasingly learned to think as one massive hive mind.

Accordingly, when a global ecological catastrophe smashed the planet in 2026, those countries able to restore their networks survived while the others, unable to think collectively, decayed into chaos.

In our world, it was the North American Union — Canada, the US, and Mexico — who made it.

The rich got richer while the poor got poorer. Internet connectivity had saved the NAU, so its obsession with that connectivity only increased. That old desire — I want access to everything, everywhere, at all times — was answered by Crossbrace, a location-aware network that tracked users, knew the details of all connected environments, and pretty much let people access whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted to.

Later, Crossbrace was supplanted by The Beam, which did that job even better. The Beam was run by artificial intelligence, so it grew on its own, always anticipating what its users wanted most. Companies developed implantable cybernetic enhancements and nanobots that could be injected into the body. The line between humans and computers blurred, but it didn’t matter because everything was so much easier. If you wanted to call someone, you tipped your head to activate an implant. If you wanted to remember something, factual data from the brain could be uploaded to the cloud.

The Beam always knew where you were, what you were doing, and what you probably wanted or needed.

We detailed a fictional world of an imagined future, but here’s why you care:

Given how often most people check their smartphones, is it so hard to imagine that innovations like Google Glass might soon make that information available at all times on a body-worn heads-up display?

Once the technology is available, doesn’t it then make sense for a corneal implant — or maybe a smart lens — to put it right on the surface of the eye … quite literally accessible in a blink?

Given how some people wear Bluetooth ear dongles 24/7, do you think the general population would adopt a communication device that could be surgically implanted in the ear?

Too Much TechnologyGiven our society’s obsession with online social interaction and services like Foursquare, might some folks enable a feature that tracked them at all times so that they wouldn’t have to bother manually inputting their status updates?

Pretty cool, right?

And, when you think about it, maybe inevitable.

A Slippery Slope

The Beam isn’t really about the future. In the ways that matter most, it’s about right now.

We worry about Pandora’s box. It’s already open and will not be willingly closed… so what’s going to follow?

Writing The Beam and Plugged, in part, is our way of asking what might come next — if we continue down what may or may not turn out to be a rather slippery slope.

People, like rats, aren’t good at self-denial. If it feels good, we tend to do it. If we discover that we can do something, we don’t always ask if we should.

It’s pretty neat, in the cell phone age, to be able to speak with someone wherever you happen to be. But when you can be contacted at all times, there’s less peace. You can be tapped on the shoulder whether on a quiet hike or playing with your kids. And sure, you could ignore those calls or leave your phone out of sight and auditory range, but how often would you?

How often do we have the willpower and self-discipline, even if we want to?

Every time we think, “I’ll just take this one call,” we half-justify the next one.

Every time someone uses a cell phone inside a restaurant, it gives a whiff of permission to the rest of the diners.

Every time you check Facebook for inane updates at the dinner table, it becomes that much less of a violation.

Sometimes it almost seems as if the only way we might ever regain the sanctity of certain situations — the purity of silence, the ability to explore while getting intentionally lost — would be if our precious technology disappeared.

Because even if we can control ourselves, can the same be said of the seven billion others sharing our world?

Tech AddictAnd hey, I’m no hero. I’m just as guilty as anyone. I’ve checked my phone under the table at a restaurant, hopefully out of sight but probably fooling nobody. I’ve refreshed Internet pages I’m watching when I run to the bathroom while I’m out with my family.

Secretive. Furtive. Total addict behavior.  

Sometimes I feel like one of those anti-porn crusaders who wants to eliminate smut because they themselves can’t resist its lure.

Please, someone take this iPhone away from me before I hurt myself!

That’s what’s happening right now. Today, in 2014.

What happens in 2024?

What happens in 2034?

And to come full circle, what happens in 2097?

Most of The Beam’s inhabitants don’t see their hyperconnectivity as tragic or anything to worry about, but we (sitting complacently back in 2014) would argue that that’s precisely the problem. It has become normal. 

Yet by 2097, The Beam acts like the average person’s sixth (and seventh, and eighth) sense. It’s their memory. It’s their connection to their friends and family. It’s their constant companion. It’s their guide and tutor. Some people are so connected that they refuse to come out into the real world, living their everyday lives through visors and walking simulations. When there are outages, everyone feels a loss — not unlike the frustration we feel today when the power goes out or we can’t get cell or Internet service. When it happens in our future world, there are always rashes of suicides.

But hey, that’s fiction. That sort of thing doesn’t actually happen.


The Tipping Point

PluggedBorrowing shamelessly from Malcolm Gladwell, Sterling Gibson (our fictional, future author of Plugged; think of him as me and Sean wearing monocles) argues that in the year 2097, humanity has reached a “tipping point.”

The Beam network has made us damn near superhuman. The downside is that we’re so dependent on the network, we almost can’t live without it. We’ve offloaded so much mental heavy-lifting to technology (we have trouble remembering without cloud storage, communicating without the tech as a go-between, and solving problems without crowdsourcing the “hive mind” baked into our everyday experience) that we’re crippled without it.

In other words, by 2097, humanity becomes more powerful by the year. Nanotechnology has increased brain function. The ability to upload minds seems to be on the horizon. All of that is great … but only so long as the network continues to function.

85 years into the fictional future, we must tip in one direction or the other: either become fully digital beings untethered by our mortal bodies, or rediscover the trick of living as normal humans whose brains work fine when isolated.

The only way out of that rather tricky dichotomy, Gibson argues, is to learn restraint.

Self-discipline. Control. Willpower. 

And that, we would argue even outside the guise of Sterling Gibson, is the same lesson we’d do well to learn today.

We have a challenge for you, and a challenge for us.

Test yourself. See if you’re truly addicted. If you own a cell phone, turn it off for a day or three. See how it feels. Go camping, in a primitive setting, without so much as a GPS.

For bonus points, hike out to camp, leaving your car behind. Get lost in a city and don’t use anything other than your mind — or stopping to ask for directions — to extricate yourself.

Go to a friend’s house and knock on the door without calling, texting, or emailing first.

Send a letter and wait for a reply.

Free From Technology We’re not suggesting we eschew technology and head back in time … but we are suggesting that we determine if those old ways are still possible, because the worst addictions are the kinds we can’t see.

Let’s say this is a slippery slope. For the sake of argument — and we’re not saying this is true, mind you — what if we really are on a path to dystopia?

If that’s so, maybe we can learn how to control ourselves.

But what happens if the rest of the planet can’t?

Thank you for reading …
Johnny (and Sean)


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