Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Whose Convenience? (2019-08-27)
Photograph of a mid to late nineteenth century piece of furniture designed to hide a chamber pot and likely also prevent it from being tipped or knocked over, Wellcome Trust item L0057869. Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust via wikimedia commons
A growing trickle of articles suggests that more and more people are questioning the ostensible rationalization for increased surveillance and insertion of computers even where it makes no sense in our lives: convenience. For example, quite apart from the growing corpus of articles (and books) questioning the actual utility and value of "artificial intelligence," economics blog naked capitalism's posts include the especially pointed Technology, Convenience... and Death from 20 may 2019. The piece traced the "convenience" mantra versus the actual results and the messages about life, the body, and plain humanity these various technological pseudo-fixes entail. It would be easy to think that these are new concerns, driven by the ongoing implosion of formerly respected airplane manufacturer boeing and the eerie explosion of the tesla car company. In fact, these issues were picked up quite early on with sensible warnings and workable proposals for course changes to boot. See Margaret Wertheim's 1999 The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet and David F. Noble's 1997 The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Both of them point out the lack of real conflict between science and religion as practised, and furthermore how the development of computers and the internet recreate particularly authoritarian views rooted in the medieval era in europe. There is a wide range of threads to unravel and think through related to this, from tracing the "secularization" of the dubious notion of "the rapture" as "technological singularity" or space colonization for the select few to attempts to recreate supposedly godlike powers on Earth via total surveillance. But for the moment, I would like to go back to that stubborn word "convenience."
UPDATE 2019-07-09 - In my recent read of Meredith Broussard's Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World (MIT Press, 2018), she briefly recounts a key example of "learned helplessness" leading not only to a ridiculous waste of time and knocking around daft non-solutions, but also a key illustration of sex-role stereotyping in action. Broussard quotes an anecdote about Marvin Minsky recounted by Stephen Wolfram, the latter (in)famous for the writing a giant book about "a new way of doing science" that never explains what the new way actually consists of, the former for being a key figure in the early development of computer programming. The anecdote deals with a question about caring for houseplants, which after some discussion about using nanobots to deal with it, Minsky finally admits he is hopeless with such living beings and has to defer to his wife. Broussard's paragraph on the next page (80) is particularly apropos here.
"Because humans have a long and successful history of dealing with plant problems, this conversation suggests a certain learned helplessness in these scientists. It wasn't hard to diagnose houseplants 'without the web' in the 1980s. You could go to the local florist with a description... You could go to the local hardware store to discuss your plant problems. You could telephone the local agricultural extension office. At any of these places, there would be a community member with the appropriate horticultural knowledge. People know how to deal with plant problems; civilization is practically synonymous with horticulture.... Deploying bots on houseplants is a fun idea, but it's simply unnecessary."
Please note that all of the options Broussard mentions involve actually going out and talking to other people, especially people who might well be strangers. The horror of the unknown and unpredictable among the men who mostly control computer-related technology by rights would have been recognized and handled as the pathology it is if their paranoia were not so useful to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning groups.
Quite apart from its life as a euphemism for "toilet," convenience is widely understood to describe a state of being easy to do or access. So a step stool is convenient if it is available close to where it is used to reach a high shelf, or opening a can is convenient with the help of a pull tab top. Logically then, our expectation on being told that computers or software will make some aspect of our lives more convenient means that we expect that aspect of our lives to become easier. An internet-connected, computer equipped refrigerator is supposed to make grocery shopping less fo a chore, just like little rfid tags on the soap in the laundry room set up to allow automatic online ordering of new supplies when levels get low. On one hand that sounds sort of good, but since I open my fridge and use what's in it every day, and use the soap in my laundry room too, I'm generally aware of the state of my supplies. But the argument from those who insist our homes should be "smart" is that then I wouldn't have to be aware. Just as various remote monitoring set ups would make it so that I wouldn't have to be present, or even pay attention unless the system sent me an alert. Yet this still doesn't make much sense to me, because there is the cost of getting so-called "smart" gear, then the labour of setting it up, then sweating the now exponentially increased likelihood of some sort of security breach. If your house should be cracked, or your baby monitor, or simply your internet router, you have non-trivial headaches to deal with. That is not at all convenient, and the resultant inconvenience is not easily removed.
With this in mind, we need to ask some critical questions about this notion of "convenience from technology." "Convenience" may seem an obvious and unquestionable good, but at any time it won't hurt us to question what strikes us as obvious and unquestionable. Specifically, we need to ask "convenience for who" and "convenience for what." As should be no surprise to anyone, the people most convenienced by shoving a computer and an internet connection into anything and everything possible are those most interested in surveilling us. The usual beneficiaries of this being of course advertisers first and foremost in late stage capitalism, and then authoritarian-inclined governments and their agents, from spy agencies to police. Whether the "smart" whatever is secure for a short time or never, they always win, while the rest of us struggle to cope with the equivalent of radioactive fallout in the form of inappropriately shared and revealed personal information. So, convenient for serving a dangerous and hubristic project of providing certain men with what they believe to be godlike powers of knowledge and pretended control. They of course provide tempting morsels of the same pretended powers to men with less money and social influence in the form of the various devices manipulated by men engaged in stalking and other such anti-social behaviours.
I have read and watched a range of ideas about what the future of human life would be like in "developed" countries based on the assumption that as much of the daily work of maintaining our bodies is delegated to machines as possible. The authors invariably believe they are describing the best of all worlds. In these imagined futures, women are at last relieved of the drudgery of housework and childcare not by men taking on their fair share but by having androids and "smart devices" take up the work instead. Your briefcase or backpack will check your calendar for the day and tell you what to pack and refuse to let you pack an unhealthy lunch. Personalized advertising will be sent direct to your communication devices, maybe even your retinas, who knows. No matter how manically happy the narrator in these scenarios, I always come away wondering how they can be so delighted about what is an obvious dystopia of total surveillance in which you are not actually allowed to make your own decisions.
Yet that seems too surface a complaint. Thinking about it harder, I found myself remembering a now very old Dilbert cartoon, in which the Pointy Haired Boss' assistant cheerfully does practically everything about his job for him. It becomes clear in a few panels that she is training him into helplessness. Of course, this is meant to be a joke, and I don't actually think that the various techno-boosters hope to train all humans into helplessness so that they may eventually manipulate them at will. Not because having so many basic elements of day to day living wouldn't make humans helpless, but because that isn't the way they view having those tasks taken over. No indeed, such "delegation" is no doubt considered an increase in efficiency and rationality which is meant to solve a whole range of practical problems such as improving health by preventing us from choosing bad food and missing work outs to improving our productivity by releasing more of our time for work, to finding yet another way to allow capitalism to expand a bit more. No doubt they find it impossible to believe that it could be a serious problem for humans to lose basic skills like how to properly clean clothes or manage their own food. All of which suggests that a great many of these techno-boosters don't do this stuff for themselves in the first place, and that they don't understand how complex these tasks actually are. Nor that our minds and bodies can't be separated, or how important to our personal and social health it is that we take active part in making and reshaping our own immediate environment.