The cover story of Wired magazine for July 2013 (aka issue 21.06 for geeks), and indeed the entire theme of this magazine, welcomed us to the “programmable world” of millions of connected, electronic devices that will be in some sense “intelligent” and that we’ll grow to need, if not love. Plus, there is a more subtle problem with the idea that any set of electronic sensors can be “intelligent,” and can “fulfill our dreams.” I take strong exception to the idea of a programmable, “thinking” world, and I’d like to say why.
The cover story of Wired magazine for July 2013 (aka issue 21.06 for geeks), and indeed the entire theme of this magazine, welcomed us to the “programmable world” of millions of connected, electronic devices that will be in some sense “intelligent” and that we’ll grow to need, if not love. I take strong exception to the idea of a programmable, “thinking” world, and I’d like to say why.
I’ve been a subscriber to Wired for many years, not only because I have a geek side myself, but also to keep tabs on technology and what we think about it. To be clear, here’s what the Wired editors think:
Awake – When the objects around us can talk to one another, the elements of our physical universe will converge and spring to life. In time, this network will grow to fulfill our needs, understand our desires, and enable our dreams.
This issue of the magazine dedicates itself to showing us just how close this reality is, and waggles a finger that says it’s closer than we think. Which means it isn’t here yet, but will be Real Soon Now.
Let’s see if we can figure out what all this means. Is this something we should be enthused about? Wary of? Are zombie-like machines soon to take over the world?
Here are some specifics of what they’re talking about.
- When the Sun comes up, the blinds in your house open automatically.
- When baby cries, soothing music starts playing.
- Is a rainstorm coming? Your sprinklers shut off automatically.
- When your car pulls out of your driveway, all your house doors lock automatically.
All this, and we’re still on the magazine’s front cover!
Bill Wasik, writing the lead article, begins, full of wonder, by telling us
“In our houses, cars, and factories, we’re surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do. Now they are beginning to talk to one another. Soon we’ll be able to choreograph them to respond to our needs, solve our problems, even save our lives.”
Wowie!! Just imagine:
- Here you are at a rock concert with hundreds of screaming twentysomethings.
- (They actually show a full, two-page photo of this.) One caption says, “Order drinks via smartphone. Wait staff can find you in the crowd.” (As if that wait staff wouldn’t mind hunting you down.)
- Another caption says, “Presence tags (some kind of little transmitter you stick on your t-shirt, maybe, but I’m not sure) help you find your friends here [in the middle of the crowd].
- Or this one, just tailor-made for the young, hip audience this magazine targets: “Based on mutual interests, dating service pre-approves him [arrow pointing to a guy] to hit on … [another arrow] her.”
After we’ve all installed wireless computer networks, after we’ve all bought smartphones, now the author sees “the dawn of an era when the most mundane items in our lives can talk wirelessly among themselves, performing tasks on command, giving us data we’ve never had before.” And won’t this be swell. He calls this the Sensor Revolution: where the intelligence in our devices (Oh, but lots more of them than we have now) “flows into the universe of physical objects.”
He gives us a picture of all these little “intelligent” objects, like drones and (ro)bots, all connected and swarming together, acting like a single, giant machine.
Yes, he says “as if they were a single giant machine.”
I was embarrassed for Bill Wasik, because he was equating intelligence with moisture sensors and GPS-enabled dog collars “talking” to each other.
In a sidebar, he gushes: “Your coffee shop senses your approach and starts preparing your regular order.” Is Starbucks really going to start your order before you pay them? What if at the last second you decide not to stop this time? Do they charge the credit card number you’ve left them anyway? Do they call your phone and demand you come get your latte? Or do they just dump it down the drain, having already increased their prices to pay for the equipment to enable this service and cover this kind of waste?
On the surface, all this so-called intelligence seems pretty spiffy. The author tells us, “it can be hard to imagine the automation you might someday want, or even need, in your daily life.” You might, he envisions, want your (automated) office to text your wife when you leave. (Except the times you don’t want her to know this, of course.) He says it’s scary to take certain decisions out of human hands, like, say, the baby wakes up in her room crying, but the $299 latest-model baby monitor can’t quiet her by playing soothing music, so it rings your cell at the next-door neighbor’s cocktail party.
What could possibly go wrong?
This guy is obviously not a parent—I hope he isn’t, anyway. You’ve left your infant alone in your house to go drinking next door at a party? Are you nuts? You’ve entrusted your baby’s safety to electronic devices which have batteries that may run down at any moment. Maybe you’ve grown overly trusting of your electronic devices and you’re not next door, but a few miles away. The baby’s screams get louder. She’s choking. You’ve forgotten to unmute your smartphone … A thousand things.
I hope they arrest the author for suggesting such criminal negligence.
Then he talks about better-than-GPS technology we now have to locate someone down to a foot, even a few inches. Our author waxes thus: “That means knowing not merely which bar your friend is at but which couch she’s sitting on if you walk through the door.” He must be a horny, single guy down with the club scene, because this kind of technology isn’t neutral. What kind of girl would allow her whereabouts to be known by such “friends”? Would she be instructed to open her legs as he approached? This kind of app would be great for stalkers, too. How about for political or ethnic assassins? Truly scary.
The Real Issue
But this isn’t (entirely) what I wanted to talk about. There is a more subtle problem with the idea that any set of electronic sensors can be “intelligent,” and can “fulfill our dreams.” What dreams, exactly? The author doesn’t say.
- Dreams of the means to afford to buy all the equipment to do this stuff?
- Dreams of additional crazy articles like this one?
- Dreams of big, lump-sum payments from Samsung or Apple to hype their stuff like this?
Maybe, though, I shouldn’t be so hasty. I think there is a real longing here for contact with some kind of consciousness that’s bigger than any individual, and which the author confuses with mere intelligence. And I think many, many people share this longing, although usually it isn’t expressed in such a materialistic fashion as it is here. On the other hand, who are the “gods” for young people today? The heroes and heroines portrayed in movies, on TV and (shudder!) in video games. If we could only be like them! If we could only be on their side! Superman. Batman. Spidey. Lara Croft or GI Jane. If we could just belong to what they belong to!
What’s hidden here is a yearning for union, or unity. An expansion of consciousness beyond the individual level to something larger, grander and supremely inspiring. The problem with this author’s vision, and, I suspect, that of many of his readers, is that the vision is so limited. Mundane. Materialistic.
Have you ever held a bare printed circuit board in your hand? A cold slab of green fiberglass, peppered with tiny, mysterious black rectangles and other oddly-shaped bits and pieces clinging to it in complex array. It’s uncomfortable to hold, because the clipped-off wires underneath needle into your skin. It’s just a piece of hard, chill lifelessness. But pack it inside a curving-yet-flat layer of shiny black plastic, stick in a battery, and we all want one. At least one.
Back in ancient times, 1967 to be exact, a book appeared called The Medium is the Massage by the Canadian professor and author Marshall McLuhan. He was the person who coined the term global village that was current for a time. We have been so completely overtaken by the situation he described back then that the term itself has become the norm and needn’t even be mentioned. Anyway, he said, “All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.” He was using the word “media” in a very flexible sense, meaning not only media content—TV shows, the texts of text messages, You Tube videos, etc. in today’s contexts—but also the means of delivery of this content: the TV sets and now smartphones and so on, that create an environment that completely engulfs us, as the image at the head of this article portrays. Union via electronic media might seem real, but it is merely an ersatz reality: cold, hard, plastic-covered PC boards and endless streams of bits that flow ceaselessly among them. Nothing deeper. And a trillion such devices by 2025, the Wired article says.
“All media work us over completely,” McLuhan said. “They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage.”
And this is exactly the problem with ideas like this one in Wired that declaim the world is going to be AWAKE (pretty soon) as these devices grow in number and get hooked together.
Shock and awe, baby. Shock and awe.
We would like to be back in the womb again. We would like to be one with our Father and Mother, and be held. We are warm, human beings, wanting warmth and humanity, so we try to make the world as womb-like as possible. The Wired author gets a E for Effort, I suppose, for recognizing this yearning in himself, but it’s not possible using cold, PC boards and sensors that ogle us constantly, to achieve anything real.
I remember once watching an active family with two teenaged boys get ready to move. I looked in their garage one day and saw, piled six feet deep, a mound of sporting, camping, skiing, hiking and boating equipment that must have been twenty feet across. There was no way they could use all this stuff. Or clean and maintain it all. The same would be true with Wired’s electronic equipment. In the old days there were a lot of people who maybe actually couldn’t program the time display on their VCRs, but there were a lot more who just don’t bother. I often didn’t. I just ignored the blinking, blue 12:00. Would we actually program all our devices, and change them all as our lives evolved and changed? Even for the minor deviations in our work week? What a pain that would be, to keep all those (I’m thinking two or three dozen) stupid devices updated all the time. Would you do it?
Didn’t think so.
I suspect many of us would just turn a lot of the functions off as the novelty wore off and the drudgery of reprogramming all our devices all set in. Why? Because, ultimately, they have no meaning. I remember that it was exciting to finally be able to play Angry Birds on my Galaxy Note 2 like so many others were (I was a late smartphone adopter). But after a while, it just got boring and I haven’t played any cell phone games for a long time.
So if a gee-whiz network of electronic devices all wired up together is an ersatz, fake, phony union of non-intelligent, stupid, literal-minded gizmos, what would a real union be like?
That’s usually a religious type of question, or, more correctly, a spiritual question, but I don’t wish to cross into that territory very far in this essay. Other than to observe that true union cannot be found outside us, no matter how complex we make that outside world with our devices and our yearning. For the dumb logic in your so-called “smart” phone isn’t consciousness, a 30 second exposure to Apple’s Siri notwithstanding. Consciousness is on the inside, and a search for more of it must necessarily be an inner search.
So we have to put our electronic devices down, turn them off, and get quiet on the inside. That’s where all the meaning is. Such an inner voyage is the only way to truly “enable our dreams.”