Or, turning our digital past into gold.

Liquid gold spiralling toward a centre
It's quite possible that AI made this image of the liquid gold...

If my teenage son should ever read this, he’d accuse me of trauma dumping. So, dear reader, this one comes with a trigger warning: anxiety ahead.

It’s 4 am. I’ve spent the previous day fuelled by caffeine; it’s disrupting my sleep. I’m churning through dreamy-sounding meditations without achieving the comfort of sleep. So, I pick up my device and start composing this set of words, this piece. The predictive text helps. It’s less work for my fat fingers. But it’s deeper learning for a formless entity in some distant data centre. Even though it lacks consciousness, it takes the art of composition from me as I type.

The previous day, I learned that Meta is going to mine 17 years of our Facebook data. This is what’s breeding the anxiety that’s keeping me awake. In the past we’ve had arms races and space races and tech bubbles: tantalising technological pursuits that humans have blindly engaged in, hurrying towards something we can’t even comprehend. And here we are again. Racing towards oblivion. Teaching the technology as we type.

Hey, I warned you it was bleak!

I’ve recently had the pleasure of listening to Laura Jean McKay talk to my writing class about her work. She writes speculative fiction. And she’s particularly interested in the consciousness of animals, the human body, and the sum of the human experience in what she believes are the apocalyptic end times.

I didn’t think I was with her on this ‘end of days’ perspective until this Meta news hit my feed. I’m usually a glass-half-full kind of gal, with my rose-coloured glasses on and a tendency for the romantic. When I first listened to McKay talk, I was saddened by her perspective and not sure I could live with such a desolate outlook. But even as I listened, I found myself nostalgic for my former naivety - as if her talk pre-empted the new state of anxiety that I’d enter once I learned that Meta was going to perform digital alchemy, sucking the humanity out of us in an attempt to turn it into gold.

The fact that we’ve all so willingly contributed our data is not the radical part. That concept is quite commonplace. We did this knowing that they owned it, gladly giving up our data for 17 years.

The difference now can be expressed with two rhyming words: greed and speed. The tech giants – Meta, Google, Microsoft and Apple – want to win the race. They’ve got to go fast, because they want to get their hands on that big pot of AI gold.

To me, it doesn’t matter who wins. What matters is that I’m giving away my humanness as I type. It’s hard to accept – typing is one of my favourite things. But I’m coming to terms with the fact that any efforts of self-expression that I make while I tippety-tap are teaching robots to create.

What will they make? A different version of reality. And what will that be like? Most probably something awful. There will be homogeny; there’s no other way. Such powerful data mining can only lead to a lack of individuality. It’s happening and we’re letting it. We’re willingly contributing our keystrokes. Our words. Our art. Our photos. And our thoughts.

Will I leave Meta? Maybe. Maybe not. I want to stay in touch with friends and family. And I’m pretty sure I’ll still crave the feeling of connection I get when someone indicates that they like my life.

I might try to put my rose-coloured glasses back on. I can try to pretend that art is mine and that it’s my humanity that sets me apart. I think that’s what I’ll tell myself. It’s quite comforting. And to help soothe the anxiety, I’ll grab a weighted blanket and ask a soft, meditative voice to tell me it’s all going to be alright.

But underneath that I know that the robot doesn’t feel, not really. It doesn’t lie awake at night worrying. It just mines more data. It just does what it’s told.

While I’m throwing bad news at you, I might as well mention the fact that AI is destroying the environment too. The data centres that hold the AI don’t exist in an imaginary cloud. They’re in server farms, massive factories of computers that suck up energy and water. For context, here’s a pic of the Facebook data centre in Clonee, outside Dublin.

An aerial view of the Facebook data centre in Clonee

What to do, dear readers, what to do? Do we willingly enter a future that looks like the Matrix? Maybe we believe that will happen anyway, so we’ll just go with the flow. It feels so overwhelming, like it’s so much bigger than me and that I have such little control.

I’d like to keep dreaming of a different kind of alchemy, one where we turn anxiety into peace. One where I can sleep, easily, without the knowledge of the demise of art and humanity chewing away at me. One where we work, together, for the common good. A utopian vision. Ah, the bliss of my naivety. With a tinge of irony, I turn back to my Insight Timer app and load one of my favourite meditations: Liquid Gold by Vivienne Law. And finally, I sleep.   

Much love, Lyndall