Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Perils of Technology

Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending this year’s Boston Book Festival. An impressive array of major literary and academic figures participated as panelists in the event, engaging in discussions with each other and taking questions from the audience. One panel—Technology: Promise or Peril—held particular interest for me as a research and emerging technologies librarian.

I was extremely excited to see Nicholas Carr on the Technology panel, as I was very influenced by his wonderful book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, an exploration of how technology can affect us in unintended and unforeseen ways. Alongside Carr were two other distinguished figures in the world of technology: David Rose, an MIT Media Lab Researcher and author of Enchanted Objects, and Andrew McAfee, co-founder MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy.

The Technology: Promise or Peril discussion began on an upbeat note, with David Rose introducing the audience to the idea of “enchanted objects”—devices containing some small amount of artificial intelligence, with their ultimate goal being to simplify our day-to-day interactions with technology. These devices—such as a self-cleaning Roomba vacuum cleaner—are supposed to have a positive effect on our health, housing, and means of transportation. Rose posits that there are six categories of human aspirations that these objects can fall into: omniscience (the desire to know all); telepathy (the desire for human connection); safekeeping (to protect and be protected); immortality (to be vital and healthy); teleportation (to move effortlessly); and, expression (to create, make, and play). Rose also showed us a period table of elements-style chart—pictured below—displaying different kinds of objects across these categories.

While the discussion had a certain appealing whimsy to it, the whole project felt a bit too utopian in its aims. When an audience member asked about the security dangers that a wired household would present, Rose’s treatment of the question was a bit too cursory for my tastes.

Next on the agenda was Andrew McAfee, who made a sharp 180 from Rose’s forward-thinking talk and brought us back to the past for a moment. He reminded us that the technological advancement that began in the late 18th century created a tidal wave of change that continues to affect us today. McAfee made the point that while the first machine age overcame the limitations of man’s physical strength, the second machine age is bringing with it a means to overcome man’s limited senses in the form of computing. He concluded on a somber note, acknowledging that while technological advancement can be good for society, there is no economic law promising that this progress will benefit all equally. For example, he pointed out that not only is the average American family no better off economically today due to technological changes in the last several decades, but the middle class itself has been hallowed out.

It was appropriate then for Nicholas Carr to begin his talk by quipping, “In the future, you won’t have a job, but you’ll have a really cool umbrella”—referencing the cover of Rose’s book on enchanted objects (above), while bringing to mind the economic fallout that can come with major technological change. Carr told us of a study done in the 1950s to investigate whether or not it was true that automation had emancipated the average American worker from drudgery and allowed him or her to operate on a higher, more skilled level. The study, done in the industrial sector, found that the skills of the average worker did not rise at all, but in fact went down. Factory workers had turned from tradesmen into machine operators. The study found that sophisticated equipment didn’t necessarily require skilled operators; intelligence itself could be built into the machine.

Carr pointed out that this assumption persists, that technology will bring our jobs to a higher level, but real-life evidence counters this at every turn. Pilots spend most of their time on autopilot. Doctors are using computers to help with their diagnoses. Even highly educated professionals are being transformed into sophisticated button pushers. Our complex interactions with the world are increasingly being reduced into what Carr called a “homogenized economy of computer operators.” Beyond our professional lives, we are becoming more dependent on computers for our everyday tasks—from hailing taxis, to looking up recipes, to interacting with our friends and families.

Carr finished by arguing that there has always been a general historical struggle with tools, and that we can distill this struggle down to two choices: we can design tools so that they force us to use our talents and engage in more fulfilling work, or we can use technology as a barrier between ourselves and the world and its complexity. His feeling about our current use of technology was obvious enough that he didn’t have to state which choice he thought we were making in the 21st century. 

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