The Machines are Taking Over: Humans Abdicate Responsibility

Jimmy and Grandad take a trip to LondonWe are a lazy race!

It’s actually one of our strengths, it causes us to seek ways of doing things that require less effort next time. We have a wonderful word for it, efficiency.

Laziness is also one of our greatest curses.

If I wanted to invade the earth, I wouldn’t come with an army, I’d come with truck loads of free stuff that appears to make our life “easier”. Each “labour saving” device would be constructed to help us in some area of life where we felt that there was labour to be saved. In doing so it would encourage us to abdicate all responsibility over to the machine. Within a very short period of time we would have learnt to rely upon the machines totally. Once we were completely reliant upon the machines we could be made to do absolutely anything to get the machines back.

Let me give you some examples.

When I am driving my car there are occasional times when I need to travel in reverse. Most of the time, 99% of the time, I am travelling in the forwards direction, but travelling backwards is tricky, it requires some effort. I can’t just sit in my seat looking forward I need to expend some effort to turn my body around so that I can see where I am going. This effort of turning around is something that I perceive as having a lot of labour saving efficiency associated with it. What I need is a machine to help me, I need reversing sensors. Now I have the sensors I don’t need to turn around the sensors tell me when I am approaching things, great! Initially I tell myself that these sensors are just there for extra safety, but soon I have abdicated all responsibility over to the machine, the machine has got me.

Then one day I get into my wife’s car, where the machines haven’t managed to infiltrate. I sit there and put the car into reverse. I completely miss the fact that the machine hasn’t beeped at me to tell me that all is well. I press on the accelerator and set off. The car is moving backward. I still glance in the mirrors waiting for the machine to tell me all is well, but it doesn’t. I continue travelling until…

You’d love me to say that I dented Sue’s car wouldn’t you. What actually happened was that I notice a wall appearing in the mirror rather fast and stopped, phew.

Keeping on the driving theme.

I noticed one of those ever increasing “Satnav leads driver into…” stories. This one was a particularly fine example of the human ability to abdicate responsibility over to the machines:

The 28-year-old woman – apparently on her way to a Christening on 3 March – ignored signposts indicating the track was unsuitable for motor vehicles and gamely ploughed into the watercourse. Unfortunately, the river was “swollen after heavy rain in recent floods” and quickly overcame the Merc, “gushing through the car” and sweeping it 200 metres downstream “bouncing from one river bank to the other, as the woman frantically tried to smash the windows with her feet”.

That’s right she “ignored signposts indicating the track was unsuitable for motor vehicles”. It wasn’t her problem, the machine was in control.

Today the BBC is highlighting a campaign by Get Safe Online. The main purpose of this campaign is to get people to think about the things that they are handing over to the machine, encouraging people to take a survey “Just how safe are you?”. The survey isn’t focussing on whether Windows is more secure than Linux, it’s focussing on the human elements of security. All credit to them for raising it as an issue, but the problem that they have to overcome is that people have handing over responsibility for online security to the machines. The machines are in control.

I was listening to the radio this morning and one of the campaign spokesmen came on. He was asked a question that went something like this:

Interviewer: “One of the things you are highlighting is e-mail phishing. We’ve known about e-mail phishing for years now, surely it’s not still a problem?”

Spokesman: “£XX million gets defrauded from people every year via phishing. It’s still a very profitable fraud” (I can’t remember the actual number).

The machines are in control – “If the e-mail says it came from the bank, then it must have come from the bank”.

“The phone is ringing, I must answer it” – the machines are in control.

“My e-mail reminder has just pinged, I must read it” – the machines are in control.

“My blog reader has just told me I have new posts to read, I must read posts” – the machines are in control.

“The washing machine has just finished, I must empty it” – the machines are in control.

“Who’s that pinging me on IM, I must respond” – the machines are in control.

It’s time to turn them off. We are still in control, we need to take the control back before it’s too late. See that big button on the front that you rarely use, it’s the “Off Button”. Press it to find your freedom. Or even worse, ignore it, ignore the machine. Lets see how they respond to that.


5 thoughts on “The Machines are Taking Over: Humans Abdicate Responsibility”

  1. Great post Graham!
    I admit I live a bit too much in my inbox. I think we get easily confused using actively managing the tools we have to aid our activities and routines; with as you say allowing them to dedicate our responses and routine.
    I think it’s something to do with the pedestal of reliability and infallability we place on machines within our culture and society.


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