How to disappear completely

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There are many ways to become invisible. If you’re a person you can try to go underground, take yourself off the grid. If you are a new US military bomber, you can use the laws of physics and materials science to stay off the radar. And if you are a glass frog, you can simply turn your blood transparent.

We’re transfixed by invisibility, the art of disappearance. It’s magical.

Sometimes that absence is a problem: a lost job, a family member who is suddenly gone. 

But other times, invisibility is success, like the panic about the hole in the ozone layer. That particular anxiety only disappeared because we stepped in and stopped the worst from happening.

“Had the world not banned CFCs, we would now find ourselves nearing massive ozone depletion. ‘By 2050, it's pretty well-established we would have had ozone hole-like conditions over the whole planet, and the planet would have become uninhabitable,’ says Solomon.”

But counterfactuals fuel conspiracy theories. It’s easy for deniers to argue that this disappearance wasn’t the successful avoidance of danger, but evidence that the threat was never a real problem in the first place.

Progress is often about disappearance, and the conflict around it. Does progress mean something is really gone? Or has it merely made the problem invisible?

That vanishing act, I think, is part of what causes worry around technologies. Sometimes work is genuinely gone, or transformed completely: think of an engine doing the work of a human.

But sometimes it’s just under a veil, the mundanity masked to look like magic. Take Laura Preston in N+1 on being a fake smart chatbot.

And often it’s in an awkward spot between the two. Military drones, for example, simply make the job of killing remote. And the driverless cars that are starting to appear, for real, are exhilarating and terrifying too.

And look at Eileen Guo’s latest investigation, exposing how the Roomba vacuum cleaner often takes intimate photos as it makes its way around the house—and that those images sometimes end up leaked into the world. In this case, training an AI to do its work inevitably requires human intervention, which in turn leads to exposure and invasions of privacy.

Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. Whenever I’m faced with “progress” I’m just left wondering if this is magic, or a mask.

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