It might be time to debate our ongoing outsourcing to tech many of life’s activities that once required our active participation, or engagement with others.
Already, many of the simplest ones involve using a website or smartphone app instead of interacting with another person. I book restaurants and travel, shop retail, and do all of my banking with the push of a few buttons. Algorithms curate my news, new music, and investment activities, and remind me who I need to contact for work (and suggest what I should say). I can use a variety of tech tools to talk to people without seeing them, or hearing their voices.
What comes next will be self-driving cars, refrigerators that replenish themselves, and medicines that do for our bodies what our wetware brains can’t, or won’t. Institutional surveillance will collect data on our every movement in physical or virtual space, so as to identify the highest probability criminals and terrorists.
Companies will continue to swap human beings for robots, whether on factory floors or in services like hiring, where artificial intelligence has no gender or racial biases. Google’s Alphabet recently won the right to build a waterfront development outside Toronto from the ground-up, in hopes of realizing all the promises of technology before the maddening presence of humans mucks it all up.
Is all of this outsourcing to tech actually better than what it’s replacing?
I’m not nostalgic for the past. The only difference I can hear between digital music and LPs is that mp3s don’t skip or wear out. I’ve been eating GMOs since I first tasted broccoli. Vaccinations don’t cause disease, they prevent it. I don’t miss punching computer cards and waiting hours for a batch process to run, missing meetings because I couldn’t find an address, or picking up a package of developed pictures and discovering that all of them were fuzzy.
But I do wonder about two aspects of the things we’re rapidly losing.
First most activities that required participation and engagement yielded unintended consequences. Chance encounters with people you might not have otherwise met. Insights into others or yourself that you could have never planned.
Getting stuff done often required patience and resolve, which taught self-control and focus that are obviated when you get instantaneous results. Standing in line might have been woefully inefficient, but 10 minutes of forced downtime had its merits, too.
Maybe kismet and happenstance were just ways of describing the effects of incomplete data, but I can’t believe that we’ll be able to code or automate all of the nuances of living that we once took for granted. Will we be better off without them?
Second, just as technology has made doing things simpler, it seems like interacting with human beings has gotten harder.
It’s a thing — studies have shown that we get impatient with even the slightest delay in, say, shopping experiences because we’re used to getting things when we push a button — but also I think people who provide services to other people have gotten impatient with their lot.
The road to total robot outsourcing is paved with automated steps, so many jobs that are getting simpler are also becoming less rewarding (it started with the first factory assembly line). Throw in the effects of people having no civility or manners anymore — that’s a thing, too, coming as a direct result of interacting mostly with our servile devices — and we get this feedback loop that encourages us to avoid one another which, in turn, makes us less able to interact when we must.
The people who live in that magic tech city that Google is building will have needs for rewarding experiences, but will they get them fulfilled by technology instead of interacting with each other? Will every city become a collection of individuals, living unique lives mediated by their technologies that exclude their physical neighbors?
Just count how many people are wearing earbuds or staring at the phones on a bus or train car sometime, and you’ll see the math for being alone together. It makes me think that we should be sending our kids to camps to teach them to be human beings again instead of coders.
Every transformation in society comes with costs that nobody anticipated, because it’s hard to value things that are taken for granted (or so core that you don’t even see them). We’re already seeing some of those effects as we outsource our lives to technology, but the process is still in it’s infancy. So the real impacts are beyond our imagination.
But it should be obvious already that the idea that technology is better is simply not true.