Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

The Promise of Technology

I saw a great viral image this week. It's a screenshot of the iPhone reddit app. Someone is looking at a reddit post which asks the question, "If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?"

A redditer posts a reply which has received over 3,000 upvotes at the time of the screen grab: "I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in to arguments with strangers."

Regardless of the hyperbole in the first sentence, the joke in the second immediately connects. There are lots of things you could say about the redditer's response - lots of potential starting points for discussion. But I don't want to use it as a springboard for bemoaning web culture, since - cats or no cats - to do so would be a pretentious and ultimately redundant exercise. Nor do I want to retaliate in any way and try to pretend that much of what occurs online isn't trivial. Some of it just is, though that isn't to say that it's unhealthy.

"We are caught in an elastic dialogue between euphoria and consternation which will continue to fuel the development of new technologies"

What I want to do instead is contrast this thought, this satirical insight, with the promise of technology that always greets us with the arrival of a new device or service. I want to talk about the idea that we are caught in an elastic dialogue between euphoria and consternation which will for centuries to come fuel the development of new technologies. This industrial conversation is now so familiar to us that self-awareness of it is a constituent part of modern culture.

The two top-voted replies to the redditer's joke did not continue in the satirical vein (though many others, naturally, did). Instead they simply marvelled at the things smartphones can do. "[...] You've got a map of the entire fucking planet," one said, "You can [...] look up information about anything you can think of and more, you can send pictures and videos to anyone instantly or upload them at the touch of a finger... Smart phones are just amazing in my book."

The other chimed in, "The real revolution is small and fast and slides right into our lives so snugly that we forget what our lives were like preceding it, that we become anxious and disoriented when denied access to it."

So there is a fascinating tension between knowing that technology really has changed our lives and wondering whether we're making the most of it. Maybe we're just making fools out of ourselves through it. That is the greatest contemporary paranoia. Are we among those who scoff at social media? Or do we check in on Foursquare at every restaurant and bar we visit?

When they introduced the colour television, there were those who looked at the price, rolled their eyes and said, "Well, what do you need colour for? We'll just stick with a black and white one." My great-grandfather was one of them. But there is an elusive and yet fundamental point at which such scepticism gets over-written. Whether it is simply the trend of exponential adoption, peer pressure, availability, cost, or some other contextual parameter, new technology gets bought. It very often gets popular.

And over the 20th Century as we noticed that letting new technologies into our lives - new technologies like the washing machine, the calculator or the radio - we realised that the domestication of these little quantum leaps was a joy to behold. Because, on reflection, they really did change things for the better.

It is that sense of delight, that neurologically registered paradigm shift which informs the design of commercials and product launches today. We are obsessed with identifying the latest "game changer".

But tension sometimes remains. In this demonstration of early speech recognition software the attractive female presenter introduces the concept by stating how speech is such a natural way of communicating - before proceeding to speak in a very unnatural, robotic tone so that the IBM computer listening to her will understand.

Still, compare that to this video of much more recent voice recognition software inside Google Chrome which accurately interprets the naturally flowing speech of a man with a heavy Indian accent. And it only took 26 years.

But the significant accomplishment made in those 26 years is everything. The feeling, so eloquently described by the redditer I quoted above, of doing something impressively futuristic in the present-day, is second to none.

It's my contention that a lot of technology, if not all, exists to satisfy our hunger for that very sensation. Certainly a great deal about how technology looks, feels and specific details about how a device may function, are direct appeals to our senses in this way.

On some occasions, though, technology comes packaged with some especially big promises. Promises that it will save lives, revolutionise cities, aid democracy and empower people to achieve nothing short of greatness. Yet being aware that there are countless instances of all these things having occurred at some time in some part of the world leaves no guarantee that the same technology will produce equivalent effects on us. We may still, after all that, elect to look at pictures of cats.

"The whole cats vs. productivity meme is the dichotomy of our species encapsulated"

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The whole cats vs. productivity meme is the dichotomy of our species encapsulated. It would be inappropriate to predict that at some point in the future, that essential characteristic in us will be eradicated. (And yet, maybe, that could happen).

But it's important, essential even, to realise that our bemusement at such a dichotomy today is a by-product of our knowledge that there are those who benefit in extreme ways through consumer technology. By escaping oppression, for example, or by discovering excessive wealth. These individuals are always in the minority. When thinking this way, smartphones begin to look like shiny black lottery tickets.

But devices, while dictating methods of use and interaction, cannot determine the results or individual character of that engagement. That comes from us. Our circumstances, our desires.

And so the eternal occupation of navigating all this wonder and achievement, via Moore's Laws and digital wizardry, leaves us with an unanswered (unasked?) question: Will technology ever really be able to guarantee that we will succeed? Will it ever be more than a gamble? Although it sounds crazy, there may be a time when the entropy and the uncertainty of technology ceases to be an issue. It will undoubtedly require us to defer more and more to its algorithms and shudder more and more at our own foibles.

We are training ourselves for it now, by noting pros and cons, by calculating improvements in efficiency, by sniggering at the humble promises of old computer commercials.

And, one last query: If we ever reach such a point, will the joy of technology, its unpredictable impact upon us, finally die?

 

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