The Inhumanity of Smart Technology

I’m allergic to hyperbole. That said, Evgeny Morozov identifies one of the most important challenges we face in the coming years:

“There are many contexts in which smart technologies are unambiguously useful and even lifesaving. Smart belts that monitor the balance of the elderly and smart carpets that detect falls seem to fall in this category. The problem with many smart technologies is that their designers, in the quest to root out the imperfections of the human condition, seldom stop to ask how much frustration, failure and regret is required for happiness and achievement to retain any meaning.

It’s great when the things around us run smoothly, but it’s even better when they don’t do so by default. That, after all, is how we gain the space to make decisions—many of them undoubtedly wrongheaded—and, through trial and error, to mature into responsible adults, tolerant of compromise and complexity.”

Exactly right.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant observed. Corollary to keep in mind: If a straight thing is made, it will be because humanity has been stripped out of it.

What is the endgame of the trajectory of innovation that is determined to eliminate human error, deviance, and folly? In every field of human endeavor — whether it be industry, medicine, education, governance — technological innovation reduces human involvement, thought, and action in the name of precision, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Morozov’s forthcoming book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, targets what he has called “solutionism,” the temptation, I take it without having read the book yet, to view the Internet as the potential solution to every conceivable problem. I’m tempted to suggest for Morozov the target of his next book: eliminationism — the progressive elimination of human thought and action wherever possible. Life will increasingly consist of automated processes, actions, and interactions that will envelope and frame the human and render the human superfluous. Worse yet, insofar as the human is ultimately the root of our inconveniences and our problems, solutionism’s ultimate trajectory must lead to eliminationism.

There are tragic associations haunting that last formulation, so let me be clear. It is not (necessarily) the elimination of human beings that I’m worried about; it is the elimination of our humanity. The fear — and why not, let’s embrace its most popular cultural icon — is that we will be rendered zombies: alive but not living, stripped of the possibility for error, risk, failure, triumph, joy, redemption, and much of what renders our lives tragically, gloriously meaningful.

Albert Borgmann had it right. We must distinguish between “trouble we reject in principle and accept in practice and trouble we accept in practice and in principle.” In the former category, Borgmann has in mind troubles on the order of car accidents and cancer.  By “accepting them in practice,” Borgmann means that at the personal level we must cope with such tragedies when they strike. But these are troubles that we oppose in principle, and so we seek cures for cancer and improved highway safety.

wall-e

Against these, Borgmann opposes troubles that we also accept in practice, but ought to accept in principle as well. Here the examples are preparation of a meal and hiking a mountain.  These sorts of troubles, sometimes not without their real dangers, could be opposed in principle — never prepare meals at home, never hike — but such avoidance would also prevent us from experiencing their attendant joys and satisfactions. If we seek to remove all trouble or risk from our lives; if we always opt for convenience, efficiency, and ease; if, in other words, we aim indiscriminately at the frictionless life; then we simultaneously rob ourselves of the real satisfactions and pleasures that enhance and enrich our lives — that, in fact, make our lives fully human.

Huxley had it right, too:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

In claiming the right to be unhappy, the Savage was claiming the right to a fully human existence. It is a right we must take increasing care to safeguard against our own fascination with the promises of technology.

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78 thoughts on “The Inhumanity of Smart Technology

  1. Surely it’s not necessary for us to deliberately aim at frictionless life. Because it is frictionless, we can slide into it without knowing. No particular doctrine is required.

    One of the paradoxes is that technological innovation itself requires the sort of engagement with difficulty that technological slickness tends to discourage.

    If you can have a high profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist and tech culture pundit like Paul Graham saying that suspecting everything new is becoming a reasonable strategy (see http://paulgraham.com/addiction.html) then clearly something a bit odd is going on. The obvious battle lines don’t fall in quite the right places.

    • Thanks for this comment and the link. Both your points are well taken. You’re precisely right in saying that no deliberateness is required, and that this is very much the problem. The deliberation must therefore be in the conscious choice of certain forms of friction.

  2. “if we always opt for convenience, efficiency, and ease; if, in other words, we aim indiscriminately at the frictionless life; then we simultaneously rob ourselves of the real satisfactions and pleasures that enhance and enrich our lives — that, in fact, make our lives fully human.”

    Outstanding reflection. I’ve also grappled with many of the ideas you’ve so articulately set forth in this blog, and it’s a discussion that nobody seems willing to have. What is lost if we constantly strive for convenience and ease?
    Have you read any Bill McKibben? I recommend Enough–Staying Human in an Engineered Age. Also, you might like my strong reaction to Google Glass Project–
    http://mindfulstew.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/googles-project-glass-count-me-out/

    • I’m somewhat familiar with McKibben, but I’ve not read any of his books. From what I know of it, though, Enough is one that would likely resonate. And thanks for the link. Good points there.

  3. “We must distinguish between trouble we reject in principle and accept in practice and trouble we accept in practice and in principle.” -> totally agree…

  4. I wouldn’t worry too much about sterilizing the technological world of human fallibility. Humans have an inexhaustible talent for pushing against things until they crack or break, in every interpretation. With each great stride forward comes a (New and improved!) opportunity for error. I just read a brilliant statement on a random forum last night:

    “If a manufacturer made humans, the recalls for performance issues would be endless.”

      • Well, you can’t think for people, ain’t it the truth. But you CAN be an astonishingly vibrant visual aid that inspires them to join you.

        Tell someone they’re wrong and they’ll expend their last breath telling you all the reasons they’re right. But be a source of intense jealousy for them and they will kill themselves investigating what you did to get where you are so they can get there, too.

        Go forth and thrive, watch the herd gather behind you. Just keep your eyes forward.

  5. Welcome to those of you who are visiting via Freshly Pressed. I’d love your thoughts on this post as I do think this is an important theme.

    Most of the writing here focuses on the technology and its place in our lives. If you like what you see, consider connecting with the blog via email, Facebook, or Twitter.

    A recurring theme of late is what I’ve called the Borg Complex, the rhetoric of technological determinism. From the homepage, you can easily find links to these posts and the new tumblr I’ve set up to catalog instances of the “resistance is futile” thinking regarding technology.

    Cheers!

  6. what other time in history have we allowed marketers to enter our home and tell us there is something wrong with us a their product will save us at a reate of 5 commercials every 10 minutes?

    but i do believe technology comes full circle in some ways; look at us here sharing ideas with each other.

    good post

    • also i think pain, trial and error, taking the hard way are all important pieces of the scientific method. whats the highest science of all? the science of the self. from all these we learn to observe the difference layers of causes to our current effect and begin to see the beauty of it all and also begin to cause the effect we are looking for. life without this process is a life without progress. the answer (lets just call it that) is not to escape having problems like so many seem to be out to do now days; it is to find a things that made them worth it and to them into a joy to work with. i don’t think anyone does this by “solving” their life. too many people looking for the easy way now days.

    • Eric, I was thinking both thoughts, more or less. I’m not sure we do very much choosing at all–whether for comfort, frictionlessness, or much else–when the marketers are at us. Certainly we should be making choices, but most of the time we don’t. (Just checking my Droid here because the message light lit up.) The drive to sell things pushes nuances aside.

      And the complication is indeed that the critiques about technology are always disseminated via technology. Maybe the trade-offs are worth it, but I’m not sure–it’s difficult to resist a good blog. Back to my Droid.

      • (To Paraphrase) Seth Godin was quoted as saying that days of Marketing being successful based on “interrupting you and telling you what you need” are over. That the days of “social marketing” or of entering into “conversation” with consumers have begun.

        I have contemplated my own role within the marketing world many times. Not all marketers are liars, not all are out for the all mighty dollar (most but not all).

        Some of us really just enjoy sharing peoples stories. We represent small businesses, so when we work with “clients” we get to know them very well. Their hearts are in their businesses, and being able to come beside them and help them reach their goals is very fulfilling.

        They tend to develop relationships and conversations with their customers and “regulars”, who then place a great deal of value on them. When we see that we have helped others find this value, we fell pretty good.

        It is this work with the “little guys” that drives our ideas for “marketing” (dirty word) it is also what gives us hope that Seth might be right. That the days of manipulation are over and the days of listening and responding may soon be here.

  7. I often use a piece of imagery I call “The Machine and The Gardens.” What you wrote here about the dehumanizing aspect of smart technology is exactly what the machine is. The problem with digital technology is not how it makes our lives a little easier. In the edition of “Brave New World” I read, Huxley points out, in the preface, that he’s not against technology. It’s very useful, he says. The problem is that we enslave ourselves to it and, at some point, it stops being us integrating technology into our lives and starts to become technology integrating humanity into its code. And then we become the machine.

    Sincerely,
    Julien Haller

  8. “In claiming the right to be unhappy, the Savage was claiming the right to a fully human existence.”

    More like claiming the right to determine, make, and enjoy his own happiness. That’s the thing — we’re all mostly alike in the lowest common denominator, so that’s where any mass-produced happiness has to aim. Low. Very low.

    The higher things that make us truly happy are the peculiar, weird individual things that we don’t necessarily share with our neighbors, or even with anyone within ten miles of us. To be truly happy, we need to craft our happiness individually. We even need to spend decades figuring out what the hell it is, much less how to go about crafting it.

    If we don’t, we run the risk of becoming nothing but a collection of satiated body openings, with everything above the neck left to fend for itself or atrophy. Happy body openings and an unhappy brain is all mass production can get us.

    • Interesting coincidence that this is a very thought I have been pondering for some time. The thing with frictionless, is that when friction does occur, people tend to fly off the deep end,

      I would say, from my own personal observations only, that we are indeed becoming a society of the living dead. We are saturated by stimulus that is all controlled by others… we become addicted to it, need it and soon we are unable to imagine life without it.

      Brrrraaaaaiiiiiinnnnnnsssss….

  9. Applause! Great post, congratulations. More and more I see the rise of technology and science as its feeder as a slave, turning the wheel of capitalism. Just as Huxley predicted, we depend more and more on happiness pills and the epidemy of positive thinking. “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy”, to show true emotions, to be different. In fact, my first blog post, “The right for crazyness” was dedicated to this issue.

  10. I think its all wrong.really wrong . And you all who wants to be unhappy didn’t lose that right swith off your computer tv, domestick appliances and here we go ….. Everyone still have choice to live in the forest and hunt their dinner. But what about people who need technology just to survive everyday life…. live them die? You all to good in life too happy .. Yes technology has it bad and a good side like everything in this world . So stop your with hunt

    • I agree Elena. Fear of technology is what we call a “first world problem.”

      Just now, as I’m looking out my window at a world of blowing snow, I’m glad for windows, and stoves, and all the rest of that newfangled technology that eases our lives.

      If you want to experience hardship, try living without a table sometime.

      OHD

      • If we’re doing memes, I’ll see your “first world problems” and raise you a “courage wolf” ;)

        If, on the other hand, you prefer “ways” to “memes”, you might be interested in the chapter in David H Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America” on the migration of English Puritans from East Anglia to New England – specifically regarding the way they responded to the harsh weather conditions.

        (There’s an interesting, although rather tangentially related, discussion of this fascinating book at http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/06/16/the-missing-folkways-of-globalization/)

    • I’d just suggest you read the discussion of Borgmann above. This isn’t a brief against technology in general. Nor am I suggesting that we not use technology to provide a better living for the needy, sick, etc.

      • than it all pointless just blah blah blah of restless mind, happiness isnt a comfort, happiness is a state of mind . You think its to be unique to find enlightment in suffering, but that old.. reall happines lies within you and its not easy to find it , not everyone can. But somre idividuals just take an esy way out saying they dont want it …. ha ha ha i would like to see what you would say if suddenly real happines comes your way . best luck

  11. If we live in fear and hole ourselves up to avoid ‘risk’ , life could be a little boring, but then again, there is ‘avoidable risk’ such as not driving recklessly, etc. We all have a choice on how we apply our risks.

  12. Great quote at the end, very cool and very true. We need to reserve the right to be unhappy. People I know seem to be utterly baffled when we make decisions that don’t offer the easiest or most comfortable route. But one look at their lives–their lack of humanity–and I don’t envy them at all.

  13. Here I am, reading along merrily and thinking that this post reminds me of Wall-E and the navigating computer that tries to take over, when, voila, there’s a clip from the movie. It also reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s series Foundation, which culminates in one man having to make a choice that affects all humnaity and their humanity. If you worry about technology and haven’t read these books you really ought to. They are very thought provoking.

    I enjoyed your post. I hope that we can all remember that life is a little richer when we are able to live and make our own mistakes. How else can we possibly learn about ourselves?

  14. I have enjoyed everything about this post. From the eloquent prose, to the concepts that so closely mirror my own.

    May I ask, would you agree that the lions share of this problem, is the human races utter lack of discipline? (this is a generalization of course).

    It seems to me, that our addiction to technology and stimulus is very similar to the addictions that lead to obesity or do pornography addiction, or alcoholism. Ours is a race that cannot seem to fathom moderation.\

  15. Reblogged this on Cassandra John and commented:
    The more that technology takes a hold (in smart search algorithms, personal intelligence, et al.) the harder it is to be able to step back and truly consider the implications. I enjoyed, most thoroughly, this posting for starting that conversation.

  16. this sounds like something I’d want to see as a result of someone reading an article I’ve posted. Despite the folly we receive from modern technology, I think we learn lessons from being limited as a result of those things. I don’t think I’d respect writing anymore if that technology’s demeanor didn’t restrict my lifestyle.Blog on!

  17. To me, the mentality of solutionism (I really like the term) is almost akin to indulging in a form of escapism, to run away from a complex, uncertain, occasionally frightening but constantly awe-inspiring world in pursuit of a safe and sanitized one that is always comfortable. The opportunity for joy is replaced but the constancy of pleasure, the chance for genuine fulfillment lost. We really need to strive for a better balance between utilizing technology as a tool for liberation and accepting it as a form of benign and dulling oppression.

  18. Technology is the opposite of humanity. Its whole point is to take those “inefficiencies” that are inherently human – emotions, doubt, uncertainty, unpredictability – and remove them from the equation. Of course, in the process, we are just making ourselves redundant. I think humans are the most self-destructive of all species.

  19. “We are feeding a beast that will never be satiated, but that’s not really the problem. We can load the networks with as much information as we please. How much they know is not the issue. The problem is that they are incapable of understanding the intrinsic value of what they know. They interpret it all as cold code.”

    -naked black girls

  20. Whoa, lots of comments here. Too many for me to read all of them at the moment, so if I’m repeating what someone else has already noted, please forgive.

    This issue was covered very eloquently in a science fiction novelette I read many years ago, which followed this mode of thinking to its absurd conclusion. Back in 2002, I read every science fiction, fantasy, and spiritual book in my local library (along with some interlibrary loans) so I don’t always remember where I get some of the stories in my head, but I believe this story was called “With Folded Hands” and it was by one of the science fiction greats. Ah, thank you Wikipedia: a 1947 science fiction novelette by Jack Williamson.

    Essentially, a self-perpetuating robot is created with a prime directive to serve humanity. The robots take over and leave humanity with nothing to do, no purpose. Fin.

    So, is that really where we want to go?

  21. Good point of view. We don’t need to always rely to accomplish something on any high technologies. It is true that through smart technologies, we can perform a task perfectly without making mistakes. Certainly, it is bringing more advantage but it is also causes harmful in some instances. It makes us become lazy and too dependent when performing our tasks. Well written and well deserved in FP!

  22. And finally – someone who shares my view.

    Incredibly well written article, short and effective. Best of all, you got me thinking.

    Thanks for writing!

  23. If you stop for a moment, which I do, ever so more, you realize that your life has been swooshed up in the momentum. At first you feel frivolously unencumbered. It’s the belief that the momentum is essentially good for your well-being.

    Every single day in my work-a-day-world, living as I do in the procedural hell of Blackboard, a part of my brain atrophies.

  24. this is right on brother. i am fascinated with the same things. what is success if not simply an absence of failure? how can anything be realized if it’s opposite is eliminated? i don’t worry because there will always be those who resist the extremes our society swings to and from. there will always be a counter culture. it is human nature for us to create and destroy.

  25. Very well written and engaging article! I am curious though, do you think that if the current line of thinking in technological innovation is carried out to its logical conclusion that human beings themselves would eventually have to be altered in such a way as to make them as efficient as the technology they are using? I have read many articles on research that has been ongoing for some time now about how to integrate human biological tissue with technology. The applications being researched run the gamut but ultimately having the ability for humans to interact with technology as if it was just another limb of their body seems to be the overriding goal. Namely the research being done by Jose Delgado into connecting the human brain, through an implanted microchip, wirelessly to the internet.

  26. Reblogged this on Hellar Reviews and commented:
    When I troll the blogosphere, I’m looking for ideas. Things that will inspire me in my writing. Finding ‘The Inhumanity of Smart Technology” was like catnip. For years we saw the possibility of technology being a necessity as fiction. But now I see us give a little bit more of our lives over to technology everyday because it’s simpler, cheaper, easier, more eco-friendly. We need more voices willing talk about the darker side of technology in our everyday lives.

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