Friday, September 23, 2016

Slouching Towards Human Dystopia

The other day I saw a news segment about pressure-sensitive devices that detect the presence of a small child in a car's child seat and alert you if you might accidentally be locking your baby in the back seat of a hot car.

BEEEEP!!! "Oh, I forgot! I have a baby, and she's sitting right behind me! I'd better bring her with me!"

Hey, saving babies is a good thing. I understand that the intentions of the people who invented these devices, and the people who buy them, are good. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

A while back, I started seeing ads in my Facebook feed for a wearable device, sort of a FitBit for emotions, that alerts you when you are experiencing signs of anger or stress, and tells you to pause and take a few deep breaths. Again, good intentions. I’m happy if this device helps someone who actually needs it. But it saddens me that there might be anyone who actually needs it.

I feel a gnawing sense of despair about the increasing dependence of human beings on electronic devices to perform for us the most basic functions of survival and caring for ourselves and our loved ones — functions that used to be performed by common sense. Soon there will be no aspect of our lives that is not mediated by machines and managed by algorithms and big data.

People don’t own, or know how to read, traditional maps anymore, and map-makers have stopped printing them due to lack of demand. Who needs 15th-century navigation technology when you’ve got Google Earth at your fingertips? And people don’t remember phone numbers anymore, either; just tell Siri who you want to call. “Okay. I have eight phone numbers for Doug Sanchez. Which number would you like to call? You can say things like, ‘Mobile, Home, Office, Other’.”

I still remember the phone number of the house I grew up in, 40 years ago. Back then, I could have made a call from that phone even if Russians hacked the power grid and took down all the cell phone networks and Google Maps and Facebook and the whole damned Internet went dark, because it was a copper phone line that didn’t require a separate power source or any data towers. Well, okay, back then we didn’t have cell phones or the Internet or data towers — cable TV was still a new invention — but you get my point. Actually, allow me to date myself still further: I remember when the Powers That Be finally required that all telephones be upgraded from rotary dial (look it up, kids) to touch tone phones, to facilitate wordless, touch-tone communication between human fingers and the machines on the other end of the line. Perhaps THAT was the defining moment, the start of all this. And look at us now.

INCOMING TEXT: "Hi, this is your GE Smart Refrigerator. You’re running low on milk. Based on your location settings, you're at Wal-Mart now. Perhaps you could pick up a carton while you're there. The milk is in aisle 12. Reply ‘1’ for walking directions to aisle 12. Reply ‘2’ for brand recommendations. Reply ‘3’ for easy 5-minute recipes using dairy products"

ALERT: "Hi, this is your Range Rover. It looks like you left a human child weighing 14.3 lbs in the back seat of the vehicle. I've started the engine and turned on the AC as a cautionary measure. Press 'OK' to dismiss or 'PANIC' to activate the vehicle’s alarm system."

REMINDER: "At Facebook we cherish your significant moments. Today’s your 10th wedding anniversary! Why don’t you post something about your spouse to let your friends know how much he/she/they mean(s) to you?"

Another new technology called Magic Leap is being cooked up for you right now, behind a veil of corporate secrecy so thick that it rivals anything the military might be working on. Magic Leap, from what we are told, will project virtual reality images not onto a screen in front of you (like all previous VR technologies) but directly into your eyeball, tricking your brain so you will find it difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s unreal. But why would you want to? Magic Leap is pretty damn cool, to be honest. The new reality that’s being created for you is so much more comfortable, so much more convenient, so much prettier. There’s less to think about, and more to enjoy.

Slowly, one device, one technology at a time, we are becoming the humans depicted in the film Wall-E, who float like blobs through shopping malls on their self-driving hover-chairs, no longer able to walk on their own legs, hooked into VR screens and automatically fed snacks and sodas, video-chatting with the person next to them because it’s too much effort — and frankly it would just look weird — to turn their heads away from the screen and engage in actual conversation with another human.

1 comment:

Jhana Bowen said...

Hey Brother
I truly appreciated the first blog of yours I read about separation and heartbreak. It was truly powerful and very well written.
I get that you have a lot of feeling and powerful insight derived from your knowledge of the tech world, yet somehow I feel that your blog here could have gone on to drive a point. A conclusion that saw a deeper perspective to life.
An integration of some sorts. Particularly since we are able to find wisdom such as what you are sharing through your blog thanks to the wonderful miracles of technology.
Thank you for your writing, keep it up.