4.18.2006

Cool Stuff, or maybe not so cool

A book at the library caught my eye: Cool Stuff and How It Works (by Woodford, Collins, Witchalls, Morgan, Flint). Flipping through it, I learned the rudiments of how iPods, pet translators, MRIs, fire suits, Tholos pods, and bionic feet work. Then I ran across the following exposition on pages 44-45. Imagine this being read in a futuristic, soothing, omnicultural, everything-is-going-exactly-as-we-planned kind of voice:
In the next decade, most electronic devices will become connected to the World Wide Web by high-bandwidth fiber optics. When you are on the move, computers built into your clothing will be able to link with navigational satellite systems to tell you your precise location and enable you to download information on local services.

Invisible sensors embedded in public space, from parking ramps to art galleries, will recognize and respond to your presence. These areas, called "intelligent environments," will be able to provide information according to your needs and preferences, such as showing the way to a parking space or directing you to an artwork that particularly interests you. The technology may also be used to sell products: as you pass by a digital billboard, the display might change automatically to show items tailored to your own lifestyle.

Sensors will play a central role in the development of "affective computing." This technology will enable computers to gauge your moods and respond to them. Cars will be able to detect when you are stressed or angry and slow down automatically to reduce the risk of accidents. Chairs will know when you are bored, tired, or frustrated and shift their position to make you feel more relaxed or alert. Phones will be able to register whether you are happy or sad while you are speaking and create emotions or color feedback patters to communicate this to the person on the other end of the line.

Computer technologies will bring new benefits, and past obstacles will disappear. For example, instant translation technology will allow you to speak English into your cell phone and be heard in Japanese by the person you are calling in Tokyo. On the other hand, with our cell phones and computers constantly communicating with one another, satellites surveying our positions from space, and sensors monitoring us on the ground, privacy may become impossible. Some people fear that this problem outweighs the benefits that better communications will bring. But the information age is here to stay, and it will continue to make the world feel like a smaller place, and to be one in which everyone takes part in the free exchange of ideas and information.
I can't begin to express how disturbing such a future sounds to me (mostly because it took so long to type I have to go to the gym now), nor how chilling the tone of such alarming predictions has become. It makes me want to buy acreage in Montana or Greece and raise goats and vegetables.

10 comments:

the plunge said...

Tsk, tsk. You've become, Grendel, a party to the very scaremongering to which you yourself have fallen prey. What is it that's so profoundly disturbing about the inexorable advance of microtechnology? Is it the thought that in the future someone who really wants to know will be able to find out exactly where you are and what you're doing? Newsflash!

The thing about this particular dystopic vision is that the worst part of it -- the annihilation of privacy -- is more a child of irrational fear than it is of probability. Just like with any of your pandemics du jour, impending radiological attacks, or various and sundry nightstalkers with your horrible demise atop their to-do list, well, to put it bluntly...you've got other things to worry about.

In other words, the conclusion that Worst Case Scenario #457a will inevitably coincide with Most Likely Scenario #457 is not a foregone one. If civil liberties remain mostly intact, as they have (yes, more or less) in this country for 200 years, then future people will make sure to erect legal and technological bulwarks against the 1984 scenario. The information may be out there, but the access will be restricted.

Obviously if the current erosion of the Bill of Rights continues apace, all bets are off. But then we'll all be subject to totalitarian whim anyway, at which point a couple more video cameras in the crapper won't make that big a difference.

If you take a moderately optimistic view on it, you might agree that civil libs have been chipped away at regularly, then reinforced when enough people have had enough. So I'm not going to go on Zoloft about it quite yet. Atavan, maybe.

Let's accentuate the positive! Look at all the upsides this fellow mentions! Color representations of your mood on all your friends' cell-phones? Chairs that adjust lumbar instantaneously? Advertising billboards that only show you ads for stuff you already know you want?

I love it, man. Where do I sign up?

Grendel said...

I think the thing that bothers me about such scenarios is the purpose to which the technology is being put forward: advertising, marketing, and compilations of databases for use by God knows who. I have no objection to advancing technology per se. These things are just tools. Incredible tools. Are we so imaginationally impoverished that the best thing we can think of for this stuff is to increase pervasive surveillance and sell more crap to everyone constantly?

Another thing is the erosion of personal responsibility. If I need my chair to tell me when I'm uncomfortable, then I become dependent on my chair. Somehow we survived a million years without that.

Another thing is the Law of Unintended Consequences. If my car slows down when I'm stressed, what if I'm stressed because I'm about to get in an accident and I need to speed up? It's about the pulverization of human choice and the diminishment of individual decision.

Anyway, it will be hard for electronic billboards to try and sell me stuff I already know I want and know how to find when they are underwater because the sea levels have risen. It just seems the wrong things to be thinking about, the wrong direction for technology, and the wrong application of potential help by the same old suspects bent on a backward view of empowerment. How about the president has to wear computer clothes and a light shows when he's lying? That I could get behind.

Brando said...

I would guess that there will be a lot of opt-in built into the process. That you'll have to agree to this type of stuff or turn it on for it to work.

There's actaually a trend toward greater respect of privacy when it comes to marketing. Amazingly, while Americans don't seem to bothered by the government eavesdropping, regulating wombs, or telling the gays not to do any gay stuff in their bedrooms, our countrymen don't want their TV dinners disturbed by some telemarketer without their consent.

Grendel said...

That's just it, Brando. Our priorities are utterly fucked. The structure of a totalitarian authority are being laid piece by piece, and we all just whistle as we watch the workmen. We object when the workmen step on our property -- that's about it.

We are spending $1.2 billion to begin thinking about a hydrogen economy, and $1 trillion to fight just the most recent petroleum war. That's a subversion of sensible priorities by a magnitude of nearly 1,000. What kind of health care technology could we get for a trillion? What kind of cars could we have? Hell, a bunch of C-student high schoolers built a soybean-powered car that gets 50 mpg in one year as an after-school project using parts they rummaged. Automakers have told us for decades that this is just not possible, sorry, we just don't have the technology.

It's not the tools, it's the priorities of the toolmasters.

semanticist said...

I do so hate to pile on, but...

This really isn't much different from the next generation of cookies, applied to other consumer electronic devices. Ten years ago, some people went berserk when they realized that Amazon realized it was YOU coming back and knew that you bought Madonna's book Sex three weeks before. But later, they said, "you know, maybe I WOULD like to read some reviews of her new CD."

Maybe it's a case of the water getting warmer so slowly that we won't know when we're boiling, but so far, there are very few technologies you can't "sign out" of one way or another.

Brando is right about opt-in. Earthgoat is presented to us free of charge mainly because Adsense is displayed on so many other Blogger blogs, and their ad content is decided 100% based on the content of the blog entries. So the targeting continues, but Google doesn't care one way or the other whether Grendel puts the ads here and probably never will.

And by the way, something else that happened ten years ago was Tom Selleck shilling AT&T on TV promising BMV renewals at an ATM and a grocery scanner that would read the contents of your cart instantly. And I haven't seen that yet, so I think we'll be waiting a while for the auto-cell-phone-mood-speech-transmogrifier plugin.

Grendel said...

My dear Semanticist, your perspective is very valuable. But I'm not sure you can say cookies are opt-in in any real way. I'm going to turn off cookies right now and report back on how my day went.

semanticist said...

Wha??? With the WebDeveloper extension for Firefox, I can quit accepting cookies with three clicks.

Or are you being metaphorical? In which case, I need more time...

Grendel said...

No, I mean how my day went after I stopped accepting cookies.

So far, I must say, I haven't noticed any difference in browsing. I was even able to buy something on Amazon. Why did I think I would have trouble with corporate Web sites unless I had cookies enabled?

I cleared all the ones on my computer too.

UPDATE: Oh, the irony. I was unable to post this on Blogger until ... I allowed cookies! My own blog has been the only obstacle in my cookie-less journeying. How do you like that. So cookies are not opt-in as long as I want to post on Earth Goat.

the plunge said...

Speaking of awesome cool modern technology, check this out, Rush-lovers!

Point taken about the $1 trillion. In fact, I'm really glad you posted that because I've been wondering about that figure for a while now. Every self-respecting progressive should tell that number to at least one person a day. You're so right that for a trillion bucks we could have probably gotten a couple of viable hydrogen cars to market.

The priorities argument is a very interesting one. But I think it's an oversimplification to say that we have our priorities fucked up and hence will send troops to kill and die in Iraq instead of spending the money on health care or R&D. The way I see it, these things have not been presented as a choices that the American people can make (even though that's exactly what they are), but rather as regrettable necesseties we must endure if we want to maintain our way of life.

And people seemed to think they wanted to maintain their way of life, i.e. not get nuked by Saddam. And I don't really blame them. If I thought I was going to get nuked by Saddam, I don't know what I would do. Oh, by the way, did you hear we're going to get nuked by Iran now? Guess we'll have to wait a few more years for those hydro cars.

God, it really does kill me that we've spent a trillion dollars on this. I don't think I'll pay taxes next year. I don't like the idea of subsidizing tank fuel. Or bullets.

Pete said...

I don't really care if it is modern bullshit or timeless bullshit or hell in a hand basket bullshit. Every time my interests are compromised for the sake of someone with vastly more money than me (and , thus, the power to fuck me over just that little bit more), I'm gonna call bullshit.

Take this, for example. (I'm too lazy to do the html):

http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn9011