Stuck Behind a Plow in India

So this is going to come off as more than a bit cynical, but, for what it’s worth, I don’t intend it to be.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard an interesting claim expressed by disparate people in strikingly similar language. The claim was always some variation of the following: the most talented person in the world is most likely stuck behind a plow in some third world country. The recurring formulation caught my attention, so I went looking for the source.

As it turns out, sometime in 2014, Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, proposed the following:

“The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge. The smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China. Enabling that person — and the millions like him or her — will have a profound impact on the development of the human race.”

It occurred to me that this “stuck behind a plow” claim is the 21st century version of the old “rags to riches” story. The rags to riches story promoted certain virtues–hard work, resilience, thrift, etc.–by promising that they will be extravagantly rewarded. Of course, such extravagant rewards have always been rare and rarely correlated to how hard one might be willing to work. Which is not, I hasten to add, a knock against hard work and its rewards, such as they may be. But, to put the point more critically, the genre served interests other than those of its ostensible audience. And so it is with the “stuck behind a plow” pitch.

The “rags to riches/stuck behind a plow” narrative is an egalitarian story, at least on the surface. It inspires the hope that an undiscovered Everyman languishing in impoverished obscurity, properly enabled, can hope to be a person of world-historical consequence, or at least remarkably prosperous. It’s a happy claim, and, of course, impossible to refute–not that I’m particularly interested in refuting the possibility.

The problem, as I see it, is that, coming from the would-be noble enablers, it’s also a wildly convenient, self-serving claim. Who but Google could enable such benighted souls by providing universal access to all human knowledge?

Never mind that the claim is hyperbolic and traffics in an impoverished notion of what counts as knowledge. Never mind, as well, that, even if we grant the hyperbole, access to knowledge by itself cannot transform a society, cure its ills, heal its injustices, or lift the poor out of their poverty.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Before he ships off to the Congo, Marlow’s aunt, who had helped secure his job with the Company, gushes about the nobility of work he is undertaking. Marlow would be “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.” In her view, he would be “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.”

Then comes the wonderfully deadpanned line that we would do well to remember:

“I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.”

Google Glass: Technology as Symbol

[Note: This post first appeared on Medium in July. At the time, I mentioned it on this blog and provided a link. I’m now republishing the post here in its entirety.] 

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud reportedly quipped, and sometimes technology is just a tool. But sometimes it becomes something more. Sometimes technology takes on symbolic, or even religious significance.

In 1900, Paris welcomed the new century by hosting the Exposition Universelle. It was, like other expostions and worlds’ fairs before it, a showcase of both cultural achievement and technological innovation. One of the most popular exhibits at the Exposition was the Palace of Electricity which displayed a series of massive dynamos powering all the other exhibition halls.Among the millions of visitors that came through the Palace of Electricity, there was an American, the historian and cultural critic Henry Adams, who published a memorable account of his experience. Adams was awestruck by the whirling dynamos and, perhaps because he had recently visited the cathedral at Chartres, he drew an evocative comparison between the dynamo and the power of the Virgin in medieval society. Speaking in the third person, Adams wrote,

As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring — scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power — while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.

Writing in the early 1970s, Harvey Cox revisited Adams’ meditation on the Virgin and the Dynamo and concluded that Adams saw “what so many commentators on technology since then have missed. He saw that the dynamo … was not only a forty-foot tool man could use to help him on his way, it was also a forty-foot-high symbol of where he wanted to go.”

Cox looked around American society in the early 70s, and wondered how Adams would read the symbolic value of the automobile, the jet plane, the hydrogen bomb, or a space capsule. These too had become symbols of the age and they invited a semiology of the “symbolism of technology.”

“Technological artifacts become symbols,” Cox wrote, “when they are ‘iconized,’ when they release emotions incommensurate with their mere utility, when they arouse hopes and fears only indirectly related to their use, when they begin to provide elements for the mapping of cognitive experience.”

Take the airplane, for example. In his classic study, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, Joseph Corn summarized a remarkable article that appeared in 1916 about the future of flight. In it, the author predicted trans-oceanic flights by 1930 and, by 1970,the emergence of “traffic rules of the air” necessitated by the heavy volume of airplane traffic. Then the timeline leaps forward to the year 3000. At this point “superhumans” would’ve evolved and they would “live in the upper stratas of the atmosphere and never come down to earth at all.” By the year 10000, “two distinct types of human beings” would have appeared: “Alti-man” and “ground man.” Alti-man would live his entire life in the sky and would have no body, he would be an “ethereal” being that would “swim” in the sky like we swim in the ocean.

As Corn put it, “Alti-man was nothing if not a god. He epitomized the winged gospel’s greatest hope: mere mortals, mounted on self-made mechanical wings, might fly free of all earthly contraints and become angelic and divine.”

This may all sound tremendously hoaky to our ears, but Corn’s book is full of only slightly less implausible aspirations that attached themselves to the airplane throughout the early and mid-twentieth century. And it wasn’t just the airplane. In American Technological Sublime, historian David Nye chronicled the near-religious reverence and ritual that gathered around the railroad, the first skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, the Hoover Dam, atomic bombs, and Saturn V rockets.

Taking an even broader historical perspective, the late David Noble argued that the modern technological project has always been shot through with religious and quasi-spiritual aspirations. He traced what he called the “religion of technology” back from the late medieval era through pioneering early modern scientists to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

The symbolism of technology, however, does not always crystalize society’s hopes and ambitions. To borrow Cox’s phrasing, it does not always embody where we want to go. Sometimes it is a symbol of fears and anxieties. In The Machine in the Garden, for instance, Leo Marx meticulously detailed how the locomotive became a symbol that collected the fears and anxieties generated by the industrial revolution in nineteenth century America.

As late as 1901, long since the railroad had become an ordinary aspect of American life, novelist Frank Norris describes it in The Octopus as “a terror of steam and steal,” a “symbol of vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder, over all the reaches of the valley,” and a “leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Collussus, the Octopus.”

The sublime experience accompanying the atomic bomb also inspired fear and trepidation. This response was most famously put into words by Rober Oppenheimer when, after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

This duality is not surprising given what we know about religious symbols generally. Drawing on sociologist Emile Durkheim, Cox noted that sacred symbols “are characterized by a high degree of power and ofambiguity. They arouse dread and gratitude, terror and rapture. The more central and powerful a symbol is for a culture the more vivid the ambiguity becomes.” The symbolism of technology shares this interplay between power and ambiguity. Our most powerful technologies both promise salvation and threaten destruction.

So what are the symbolic technologies of our time? The recent farewell tour by the space shuttle fleet evoked something approaching Nye’s technological sublime, and so too did Curiosity’s successful Mars landing. Neither of these, however, seem to rise to the level of technological symbolism described by Cox. They are momentarily awe-inspiring, but they are not quite symbols. The Singularity movement certainly does contain strong strands of Noble’s “religion of technology,” and it explicitly promises one of humanity’s long sought after dreams, immortality. But the movement’s ambitions do not easily coalesce around one particular technology or artifact that could collect its force into a symbol.

Here’s my candidate: Google Glass.

I can’t think of another recent technology whose roll-out has occasioned such a strong and visceral backlash. You need only scroll through a few months worth of posts at Stop the Cyborgs to get a feel for how all manner of fears and anxieties have gathered around Glass. Here are some recent post titles:

Google Won’t Allow Face Recognition on Glass Yet

Überveillance | Think of it as big brother on the inside looking out

Consent is not enough: Privacy Self-Management and the Consent Dilemmas

Stigmatised | Face recognition as human branding

The World of Flawed Data and Killer Algorithms is Upon Us…

Google Glass; Making Life Efficient Through Privacy Invasion

Glass has appeared at a moment already fraught with anxiety about privacy, and that was the case even before recent revelations about the extent and ubiquity of NSA surveillance. In other words, just when the fear of being watched, monitored, or otherwise documented has swelled, along comes a new technology in the shape of glasses, our most recognizable ocular technology, that aptly serves as an iconic representation of those fears. If our phones and browsers are windows into our lives, Glass threatens to make our gaze and the gaze of the watchers one and the same.

But remember the dual nature of potent symbols: we have other fears to which Glass may present itself as a remedy. We fear missing out on what transpires online, and Glass promises to bring the Internet right in front of our eyes so we will never have to miss anything again. We fear experiences may pass by without our documenting them, and Glass promises the power to document our experience pervasively. If we fear being watched, Glass at least allows us to feel as if we can join the watchers. And behind these particular fears are more primal, longstanding fears: the fear of loneliness and isolation, the fear of death, the fear of insecurity and vulnerability. Glass answers to these as well.

Interestingly, the website I cited earlier was not called, “Stop Google Glass”; it was called, “Stop the Cyborgs.” Perhaps Google Glass is the icon the Singularity project has been looking for. Glass is not quite an implant, but something about its proximity to the body or about how it promises to fade from view and become the interface through which our consciousness experiences reality … something about it suggests the blurring of the line between human and machine. Perhaps that is the greatest fear and highest aspiration of our age. The fears of those who would preserve humanity as they know it, and the aspirations of those who are prepared, as they see it, to trascend humanity are embodied in Glass.

Long before he visited the Exposition Universelle, Henry Adams wrote to his brother:

You may think all this nonsense, but I tell you these are great times. Man has mounted science and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.

We might think all that nonsense, but it wasn’t that long ago that fears of a nuclear winter gripped our collective imagination. More recently, other technological scenarios have fueled our popular cultural nightmares: biogenetically cultivated global epidemics, robot apocalypses, or climate catastrophes. In each case, the things we have made “become Death, destroyer of worlds.” With Glass, the fear is not that we will blow up the world or unleash a global catastrophe. It is that we will simply innovate the humanity out of ourselves. Remembering how the story turned out, we might put the temptation this way: If we will place Glass before our eyes, they will be opened, and we will become as gods.

Of course, reading the symbolism of technology is not quite like reading palms or tea leaves. The symbols necessitate no particular future in themselves. But they are cultural indicators and as such they reveal something about us, and that is valuable enough.

Borg Complex Alert!

BorgIt’s been a while since I’ve had occasion to point out a Borg Complex case, but the folks at Google have seen fit to help me remedy that situation.

At MIT’s EmTech conference last Thursday, the head of the display division at Google-X, Mary Lou Jepsen, gave us a few gems.

Speaking of Google Glass and its successors, Jepsen explained, “It’s basically a way of amplifying you. I’ve thought for many years that a laptop is an extension of my mind. Why not have it closer to my mind, and on me all the time?”

Why not, indeed.

In any case, her division is hard at work. They are “maybe sleeping three hours a night to bring the technology forward.”

“It’s coming,” she added. “I don’t think it’s stoppable.” Then why, I ask, lose so much sleep over it. One really ought not wear oneself ragged over something that’s bound to come to pass inevitably.

But, as per Mr. Brin’s directives, she wasn’t saying much about what exactly was coming. Whatever the next iteration of wearable computing looks like, Jepsen tells us “you become addicted to the speed of it, and it lets you do more fast and easily.”

Concerns? Never you mind. Remember Mr. Schmidts’s comforting assurances: “Our goal is to make the world better. We’ll take the criticism along the way, but criticisms are inevitably from people who are afraid of change or who have not figured out that there will be an adaptation of society to it.”

Silly fearful critics. Don’t they know resistance is futile, society will be assimi … er … will adapt.

Life: The First Person Video Game

Still from Kluwe's Youtube video
Still from Kluwe’s Youtube video

How will Google Glass transform professional football? Oakland Raiders punter Chris Kluwe is on the case. He is the NFL’s first Google Glass Explorer, a cadre of early adopters hand-picked by Google based on their response to the prompt “If I had Glass …”

Kluwe has had limited experience with Glass so far, mainly using Glass to record drills, but it’s been enough to give Kluwe a lot of ideas about how Glass could be deployed in the future. Alex Konrad of Forbes interviewed Kluwe and described part of what the punter has envisioned so far:

In Kluwe’s future NFL, players will wear clear visors that that can project to them the next play to run as they are getting back into position from the last one. Quarterbacks can get a flashing color when a receiver is very open or which area is about to become a good place to look. Running backs could be alerted that a new path to run has just opened up.

Here’s the striking thing about this entirely plausible development. For years, video games have been striving to capture the look and feel of the game as it’s played on the field. What Kluwe has described is a reversal of roles in which now the game as it is played on the field strives to capture the look and feel of playing a video game.

The closest analogy to the experience of the world through Google Glass may be the experience of playing a first-person video game.

This little insight carries wide-ranging implications that are not limited to the experience of professional athletes. A generation that has grown up playing first person shooters and role-playing video games is on the verge of receiving a tool that will make the experience of everyday life feel more like the experience of playing a game. This brings an entirely new meaning to gamification and it raises all sorts of intriguing, serious, and possibly disturbing possibilities.

As early as 1981, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard claimed that images and simulations, which had traditionally copied reality, were now beginning to precede and determine reality. Recalling a famous story by Jorge Louis Borges in which an empire commissions a map that is to be a faithful 1:1 representation of its territory, Baudrillard believed that now the map preceded the territory. Glass is poised create yet another realization of Baudrillard’s critique, except that now it is the game that will precede the real-world experience.


UPDATE: Nick Carr adds the following observation in the comments below, “You might argue that this reversal is already well under way in warfare. Video war games originally sought to replicate the look and feel of actual warfare, but now, as more warfare becomes automated via drones, robots, etc., the military is borrowing its interface technologies from the gaming world. War is becoming more gamelike.”

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?