Bill Wasik in Wired, on the emerging Programmable World:
“Imagine a factory where every machine, every room, feeds back information to solve problems on the production line. Imagine a hotel room (like the ones at the Aria in Las Vegas) where the lights, the stereo, and the window shade are not just controlled from a central station but adjust to your preferences before you even walk in. Think of a gym where the machines know your workout as soon as you arrive, or a medical device that can point toward the closest defibrillator when you have a heart attack. Consider a hybrid car—like the new Ford Fusion—that can maximize energy efficiency by drawing down the battery as it nears a charging station.
… At his house, more than 200 objects, from the garage door to the coffeemaker to his daughter’s trampoline, are all connected to his SmartThings system. His office can automatically text his wife when he leaves and tell his home A/C system to start powering up …
For the Programmable World to reach its full potential, we need to pass through three stages. The first is simply the act of getting more devices onto the network—more sensors, more processors in everyday objects, more wireless hookups to extract data from the processors that already exist. The second is to make those devices rely on one another, coordinating their actions to carry out simple tasks without any human intervention. The third and final stage, once connected things become ubiquitous, is to understand them as a system to be programmed, a bona fide platform that can run software in much the same manner that a computer or smartphone can. Once we get there, that system will transform the world of everyday objects into a designable environment, a playground for coders and engineers. It will change the whole way we think about the division between the virtual and the physical. This might sound like a scary encroachment of technology, but the Programmable World could actually let us put more of our gadgets away, automating activities we normally do by hand and putting intelligence from the cloud into everything we touch.”
In fact, if this indeed sounds to you like a “scary encroachment of technology,” Wasik’s word of assurance offers little consolation. The fact that the gadgets are unseen, activities are automated, and cloud intelligence saturates our environment means that the encroachment will be effectively total precisely because it will be invisible and, as they say, frictionless.
In a clever piece, also in Wired, Matt Honan imagines Larry Page as the master of his own island, a cross between Dr. Moreau and the Ricardo Montalban character on Fantasy Island:
“You are with my Google Being. I’m not physically here, but I am present. Unified logins let us get to know our audience in ways we never could before. They gave us their locations so that we might better tell them if it was raining outside. They told us where they lived and where they wanted to go so that we could deliver a more immersive map that better anticipated what they wanted to do–it let us very literally tell people what they should do today. As people began to see how very useful Google Now was, they began to give us even more information. They told us to dig through their e-mail for their boarding passes–Imagine if you had to find it on your own!–they finally gave us permission to track and store their search and web history so that we could give them better and better Cards. And then there is the imaging. They gave us tens of thousands of pictures of themselves so that we could pick the best ones–yes we appealed to their vanity to do this: We’ll make you look better and assure you present a smiling, wrinkle-free face to the world–but it allowed us to also stitch together three-dimensional representations. Hangout chats let us know who everybody’s friends were, and what they had to say to them. Verbal searches gave us our users’ voices. These were intermediary steps. But it let us know where people were at all times, what they thought, what they said, and of course how they looked. Sure, Google Now could tell you what to do. But Google Being will literally do it for you.
“My Google Being anticipates everything I would think, everything I would want to say or do or feel,” Larry explained. “Everywhere I would go. Years of research have gone into this. It is in every way the same as me. So much so that my physical form is no longer necessary. It was just getting in the way, so we removed it. Keep in mind that for now at least, Google Being is just a developer product.”
Not only is this a snarky critique of Page’s recent comments, it also pairs nicely with the Programmable World piece.
What’s the goal of the Programmable World anyway? Is it that all of us in the developed world (because, of course, whole swaths of the human population will take no part in this vision) get to sleepwalk through our lives, freed from as many decisions and actions as possible? Better yet, is it the perpetual passive documentation of an automated life which is algorithmically predicted and preformed for me by some future fusion of Google Now and the Programmable World.
I’m fairly confident nothing quite so dark is really on the horizon for us, but I do wonder about the ideology driving this rhetoric and these imagined futures. What makes any of this attractive? What desires do these potential technologies answer to?
For some people at least, the idea seems to be that when we are freed from these mundane and tedious activities, we will be free to finally tap the real potential of our humanity. It’s as if there were some abstract plane of human existence that no one had yet achieved because we were fettered by our need to be directly engaged with the material world. I suppose that makes this a kind of gnostic fantasy. When we no longer have to tend to the world, we can focus on … what exactly?