Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

The Internet of Why [post 38/100]

I was thinking some more on my way down to MIPTV this morning about last week’s post on the (possible) commoditisation of our selves through the wholesale adoption of “helpful” technologies (thanks very much for the comments, by the way, both here and on the backchannels. You know who you are).

I don’t want to sound too much like Cassandra here, but we do have an ongoing tendency to gulp down all things new and shiny before we really have much of an idea what they’re going to do in the long run. If it sounds convenient, we’ll have it thanks, and never mind the consequences – if they were that bad it wouldn’t be legal, right?

This isn’t limited to gadgetry – women have been taking the Pill since the 50s without knowing what the long-term effects might be; new pharmaceuticals carry side-effect disclaimers that frequently sound just as bad as the conditions they’re meant to treat. We have learned to value progress above all else, above even our own health and happiness. More to the point, when it comes to technology, we have at least to some degree learned to equate progress with convenience.

We get excited about Oculus Rift, which could (among other things) enable us to feel like we’re driving fast, fancy cars. But on the other hand, we want cars that will drive themselves to work and home again. It’s like all those people who spend an hour every morning on the elliptical stair trainer and then take the lift up 10 floors at the office. It’s not the task, necessarily, that we eschew. We’re happy to drive, or to walk stairs, or whatever. We just don’t want to *have* to do it.

Combine this with volumes of research that show our abilities atrophy when they go unused – besides, everyone’s got personal experience of this, right? I used to be a great at pool but I doubt I’d win a single rack if I played tonight; my French, which once was fluent, will fail me within a few minutes of entering the restaurant across the road. More alarmingly, I used to be able to remember the phone numbers of all of my friends and their families. Now I’m not even sure I’ve ever looked at my mother’s phone number, and I certainly can’t recall it. I briefly considered sending Christmas cards last year but didn’t because I realised I have almost nobody’s physical address. More than 10 years ago, I remember a friend insisting that Google would bring about the decline of civilisation because nobody would remember things anymore. Guess it was his turn to be Cassandra that day.

Do we really want to not be able to do things like drive cars and remember details? I doubt it. So what is it? Are we simply lazy? Or is there some kind of vicious cycle at work here? I keep seeing articles suggesting that despite all our modern conveniences, we are less happy and more stressed than ever. I can’t help but wonder whether this is correlation or causation: we’ve got surrogates to handle the things we used to do, but now we have to maintain and manage all those surrogates and deal with the next layer up of abstraction. And when that stresses us out, we look for another layer of surrogate.

It reminds me of (one of the) legend(s) of the Monkey’s Paw: the paw was magical and would grant its owner wishes, but also twist their mind so subtly they didn’t notice. Every wish they made would get them into deeper trouble, and every time it would seem the only way out was to make another wish.

Technology isn’t black magic and it’s certainly not inherently nefarious, but the moral of the story does apply: be careful what you wish for, and what you accept. In terms of time, privacy, data, even ability, you may be giving up more than you realise – and more than the person who made the tech realises either.

God, this is getting depressing.

It’s not all bad! I’m going to be spending the next couple of days talking to storytellers and technologists about how we can tell stories better, to more people, in more moving and wonderful ways, using technology. I’m as excited about all this stuff as the next person and probably more than most. But in the back of my head, I’ll be asking myself why – is this really the best way forward? Is this really what we want? Because so far, that’s the best way I’ve found to break free of the seductive compulsion to just do it, because we can.