The Programmable Island of Google Being

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?

10 thoughts on “The Programmable Island of Google Being

  1. My only contention is the assumption of “swaths of the population left behind.” There is only discovery in this tunnel….My girlfriend and I just talked about idea of nothing…which is non existent..even in dark matter something exists..the very definition of it needs to change or removed. If we leave our physical being, our energetic being will always exist. There is always something.

    We can focus on another existence..plane of existence that is speaking to us ….almost as if they are there calling for us to figure it out …in the abstract plane of existence..what if multiple existences exists? what if infinite existences exist and we made new discoveries with them? if we venture out into that plane, the discoveries are limitless……so if we automate the physical world then we can venture out into a new ethereal world.

  2. Id like to clarify a few things …by automating the physical world, I mean material things…it came to me that if technology is attempting to automate physical life as in life or nature itself, that supposition is entirely illogical …I believe life and nature must always supercede what we make in the material world ..in other words life first and everything else second

    1. Michael, Thanks for your comments here. There is a long tradition, going back to the Greeks, of viewing work, particularly work involving the material stuff of life, as a hindrance to the life of the mind, to contemplation. I wouldn’t entirely disagree. I get the basic premise. And I’m not opposed to automation in principle. I am, however, suspicious of certain trends in tech writing and tech innovation that seem bent on minimizing human involvement and agency from as many aspects of experience as possible. I’m also a little wary of the potential for an ethereal mode of existence since I am pretty committed to the indispensable role of the body to life as a human person.

      1. By ethereal, I mean ..its fairly difficult to explain. Perhaps, more of my wild imagination. And ethereal may not be the appropriate term for it but I know what I have seen and have questioned my own insanity satisfying societies definitions of sanity. Nevertheless, my mere speculation is that society has or will stay on a path to exciting discoveries.

        I realize the more I learn, the less I know. I can relate to the notion of tech writing attempting to minimize human involvement and agency. I experienced this when corresponding or “reacting,” to an illogical article that I read which further went into someone asserting that I have a fear of being controlled. It is my assumption (which is mere speculation), that the more society feels the necessity to control or automate life (as in the article), we will see a greater reduction in free will. Again, this is mere speculation and I am no expert. It may be that free will or human nature change or become unable to coexist if technology and or society at large continue to encroach on the very ideas the article touch upon.

        So, is it wise to stay in the cave, leave the cave or become a different allegory? Who knows? Thanks for your response.

  3. What desires do these potential technologies answer to?

    Is not much of new technology the incremental elimination of eliminatable little pain points in our daily lives, what you call “mundane and tedious activities”?

    What looks, in retrospect – even hypothetical retrospect, to be a major or fundamental advance in technology may have been the result of a series of relatively minor advances that were themselves/individually not answering to any need or desire (on the part of their creator) other than to incrementally improve or make more efficient some technology that already exists.

    Also: It is not clear to me that some ideology is required to drive technology – or any vision of our imagined future(s). Most of the engineers and scientists I’ve known have not been ideological – or ideological in their attitude to science and technology. (To be clear, I do not consider holding that scientific and technological progress can improve human life to be ideological per se.)

    I think your piece ends with an excellent question, in effect: What is it that we will do when there is nothing left for us to do physically/materially? I was reminded of Freeman Dyson’s speculation about the distant future in Imagined Worlds. Of course, that won’t happen for a *very* long time because we’ll keep re-engineering ever larger bits of the material world around us to reflect our needs and desires. Therefore, what we consider “mundane and tedious” will also keep evolving: we’ll keep relegating activities of ever greater scale/complexity to that category. This doesn’t answer the question. But, and here I’m speculating, by the time we really reach the stage that we no longer have to tend to the world there may not be much else left to focus on.

  4. Samir –
    What desires do these potential technologies answer to or how do they stand to reason their advance from? It seems that the importance of intent in the desire will provide a partial answer. Does not intent or intuition provide us a guide to motivation or completing a task? Although, intent can be incorrect at times, often many times. I find myself persistently questioning my intent, it feels natural. If the need or desire comes from a “creator” as you say, then how is the need or desire to benefit the need or desire of the whole, assuming that you meant one person is creating a technology to their own desire?

    “Also: It is not clear to me that some ideology is required to drive technology ”

    So, would it be that technology drives ideology? Is technology the same as nature or ethics or ideology? By being driven and not requiring an ideology (which can be loosely interpreted as ethics), it seems to imply that one supersedes the other to facilitate a paradigm which will again, neglect reason and nature. But, this is my opinion and I am simply a layperson.

    When you say, “we no longer have to tend to the world there may not be much else left to focus on.” …. what about life existing on this world? Life will always exist on this world so how can the advancement of technology leave us in a state where we no longer have to tend to this world? I am a bit confused by that statement. It seems like the more we tend to life on this world, then the latter or freeing up the ability to focus on other things will follow.

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