Relating to the machines

Like many of my blogs this one is a coming together of a number of thoughts and events.

It starts with reading the Gollum Effect by Venkatesh Rao which links to a video of a hand model. The video is the creepiest thing I’ve seen in a long time:

The Hand Model

As Venkat puts it:

The concrete idea is something I call the Gollum effect.  It is a process by which regular humans are Gollumized: transformed into hollow shells of their former selves, defined almost entirely by their patterns of consumption.

Imagine that the woman in the video is holding an iPhone and tell me that you don’t know someone who treats it in a similar way? Now ask yourself who’s in charge, the iPhone or the person?

The other day I watched Andrew McAfee’s presentation at TED – Are droids taking our jobs? (covering some of the content from his book: Race Against the Machines):

Within [our lifetimes], we’re going to transition into an economy that … doesn’t need a lot of human workers. Managing that transition is going to be the greatest challenge that our society faces.

But McAfee is an optimist:

So, yeah, the droids are taking our jobs, but focusing on that fact misses the point entirely. The point is that then we are freed up to do other things, and what we are going to do, I am very confident, what we’re going to do is reduce poverty and drudgery and misery around the world. I’m very confident we’re going to learn to live more lightly on the planet, and I am extremely confident that what we’re going to do with our new digital tools is going to be so profound and so beneficial that it’s going to make a mockery out of everything that came before.

Andrew McAfee: Are droids taking our jobs?

About the same time I came across this quote from Marshall McLuhan:

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us."

Marshall is also the person who penned oft used phrase – "the medium is the message". It’s interesting to note that Marshall died in 1980 before much of the current change was envisaged.

And then another quote, this time, from Danny Hillis:

“In some sense you can argue that the science fiction scenario is already starting to happen. The computers are in control. We just live in their world.”

The final circumstance was reading about a jacket that gives you a hug when someone likes you on Facebook.

The Facebook Jacket that gives you a hug

What each of these observations and events have in common is that they are all highlighting the changing relationship between ourselves and the machines around us. The pace of change has been building for some time. There was a time when information technology was limited to the work place, but that day has long gone. We are now in a world where information technology is connecting us into the machines wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

What impact is that change having?

We are relationship beings and we build relationships with people, animals, objects and substances. Technology is no exception but the relationship is changing as the machines change. It seems to me that we have a choice in how we approach this changing relationship. We can either become subservient (and become Gollumised) or we can become liberated (as Andrew McAfee hopes). We can choose a relationship where we hand over all of the responsibility to the machine and let them make us sub-human, or we can use the power of the machines to enable us to do new things. Either way there’s a huge change already in progress.

Some of these changes are seemingly innocuous, how
many people have you bumped into in the street because they were too busy interacting with their smart-phone? But even these changes have consequences. Commenting on a new safety campaign, here in the UK, Martin Gallagher, head of level crossings for Network Rail, said:

"Although we have thousands, if not millions of people who use level crossings every day, we’ve seen a trend in incidents and accidents where distraction, because people are wearing headphones, or walking dogs, or sending text messages, has become a causal factor."

That’s right, people are being killed because they are too encapsulated in their technology to notice a train speeding towards them.

Other changes are going to be more fundamental. I quite like the idea of self driving cars, but that’s going to radically change the roads and our day-to-day travel. What happens when the automated cars are so sophisticated and accurate that it’s too dangerous for us to drive alongside them? What happens when we have to hand control of the roads over to the machines?

We are in pioneering days and we still don’t really understand what it is that we are dealing with. We are giving people increasingly powerful tools but I’m not sure that we are yet giving them the necessary training on how to handle those tools. I’m not sure we even know what the required training is or what the necessary safeguards are. Every time I see another person prosecuted for writing something malevolent on Twitter or Facebook I wonder whether it was really malice or stupidity that was the primary factor.

On the whole I’m an optimist, but I think that we’ll make some pretty big mistakes along the way. Our relationship with technology is shifting and I’d prefer it became one that was similar to the relationship we have with the car rather than the one we have with heroine.

Choose freedom!

3 thoughts on “Relating to the machines”

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