What Could Go Right?

Critic and humorist Joe Queenan took aim at the Internet of Things in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. It’s a mildly entertaining consideration of what could go wrong when our appliances, devices, and online accounts are all networked together. For example:

“If the wireless subwoofers are linked to the voice-activated oven, which is linked to the Lexus, which is linked to the PC’s external drive, then hackers in Moscow could easily break in through your kid’s PlayStation and clean out your 401(k). The same is true if the snowblower is linked to the smoke detector, which is linked to the laptop, which is linked to your cash-strapped grandma’s bank account. A castle is only as strong as its weakest portcullis.”

He goes on to imagine hackers reprogramming your smart refrigerator to order “thousands of gallons of banana-flavored soy milk every week,” or your music library to play only “Il Divo, Il Divo, Il Divo, 24 hours a day.” Queenan gives readers a few more of these humorously intoned, marginally plausible scenarios that, with a light touch, point to some of the ways the Internet of Things could go wrong.

In any case, after reading Queenan’s playful lampoon of the Internet of Things, it occurred to me that more often than not our worries about new technology center on the question, “What could go wrong?” In fact, we often ask that sarcastically to suggest that some new technology is obviously fraught with risk. For instance: Geoengineering. Global-scale interventions in the delicate, imperfectly understood workings of the earth’s climate with potentially massive and irreversible consequences … what could go wrong?

Of course, this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. We ask it, and engineers and technologists respond by assuring us that safety measures are in place, contingencies have been accounted for, precautions have been taken, etc. Or, alternatively, that the risks of doing nothing are greater than the risks of proceeding with some technological project. In other words, asking what could go wrong tends to lock us in the technocratic frame of mind. It invites cost/benefit analysis, rational planning, technological fixes to technological problems, all mixed through and through with sprinklings or heaps of hubris.

Very often, despite some initial failures and, one hopes, not-too-tragic accidents, the kinks do get worked out, disasters are averted (or mostly so), and the new technology stabilizes. The voices of critics who worried about what could go wrong suddenly sound a lot like a chorus of boys crying wolf. Enthusiasts wipe the sweat from their brows, take a deep breath, and confidently proclaim, “I told you so.”

All well and good. There’s only one problem. Maybe asking “What could go wrong?” is a short-sighted way of thinking about new technologies. Maybe we should also be asking, “What could go right?”

What if this new technology worked just as advertised? What if it became a barely-noticed feature of our technological landscape? What if it was seamlessly integrated into our social life? What if it delivered on its promise?

Accidents and disasters get our attention, their possibility makes us anxious. The more spectacular the promise of a new technology, the more nervous we might be about what could go wrong. But, if we are focused exclusively on the accident, we lose sight of the fact that the most consequential technologies are usually those that end up working. They are the ones that reorder our lives, reframe our experience, restructure our social lives, recalibrate our sense of time and place. Etc.

In his recent review of Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (a title with a mildly hubristic ring, to be sure), Peter Pesic opens with an anecdote about problem solving during World War II. Given the trade-offs involved in placing extra amor on fighter planes and bombers–increased weight, decreased range–where should military airplanes be reinforced? Noticing that returning planes had more bullet holes in the fuselage than in the engine, some suggested reinforcing the fuselage. There was one, seemingly obvious, problem with this line of thinking. As the mathematician Abraham Wald noted, this solution ignored the planes that didn’t make it back, most likely because they had been shot in the engine.

This little anecdote–from what seems like a fascinating book, by the way–reminds us that where you look sometimes makes all the difference. A truism, certainly, but no less true because of it. If in thinking about new technologies (or those old ones, which are no less consequential for having lost the radiance of novelty) we look only at the potential accident, then we may miss what matters most.

As more than a few critics have noted over the years, our thinking about technology is often already compromised by a technocratic frame of mind. We are, in such cases, already evaluating technology on its own terms. What we need then is to recover ways of thinking that don’t already assume technological standards. Admittedly, this can be a challenging project. It requires our breaking long-engrained habits of thought–habits of thought which are all the more difficult to escape because they take on the cast of common sense. My point here is to suggest that one step in that direction is to get loose of the assumption that any well working, smoothly operating technology is ipso facto a good and unproblematic technology.

More on Mechanization, Automation, and Animation

As I follow the train of thought that took the dream of a smart home as a point of departure, I’ve come to a fork in the tracks. Down one path, I’ll continue thinking about the distinctions among Mechanization, Automation, and Animation. Down the other, I’ll pursue the technological enchantment thesis that arose incidentally in my mind as a way of either explaining or imaginatively characterizing the evolution of technology along those three stages.

Separating these two tracks is a pragmatic move. It’s easier for me at this juncture to consider them separately, particularly to weigh the merits of the latter. It may be that the two tracks will later converge, or it may be that one or both are dead ends. We’ll see. Right now I’ll get back to the three stages.

In his comment on my last post, Evan Selinger noted that my schema was Borgmannesque in its approach, and indeed it was. If you’ve been reading along for awhile, you know that I think highly of Albert Borgmann’s work. I’ve drawn on it a time or two of late. Borgmann looked for a pattern that might characterize the development of technology, and he came up with what he called the device paradigm. Succinctly put, the device paradigm described the tendency of machines to become simultaneously more commodious and more opaque, or, to put it another way, easier to use and harder to understand.

In my last post, I used heating as an example to walk through the distinctions among mechanization, automation, and animation. Borgmann also uses heating to illustrate the device paradigm: lighting and sustaining a fire is one thing, flipping a switch to turn on the furnace is another. Food and music also serve as recurring illustrations for Borgmann. Preparing a meal from scratch is one thing, popping a TV dinner in the microwave is another. Playing the piano is one thing, listening to an iPod is another. In each case a device made access to the end product–heat, food, music–easier, instantaneous, safer, more efficient. In each case, though, the workings of the device beneath the commodious surface became more complex and opaque. (Note that in the case of food preparation, both the microwave and the TV dinner are devices.) Ease of use also came at the expense of physical engagement, which, in Borgmann’s view, results in an impoverishment of experience and a rearrangement of the social world.

Keep that dynamic in mind as we move forward. The device paradigm does a good job, I think, of helping us think about the transition to mechanization and from mechanization to automation and animation, chiefly by asking us to consider what we’re sacrificing in exchange for the commodiousness offered to us.

Ultimately, we want to avoid the impulse to automate for automation’s sake. As Nick Carr, whose forthcoming book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, will be an excellent guide in these matters, recently put it, “What should be automated is not what can be automated but what should be automated.”

That principle came at the end of a short post reflecting on comments made by Google’s “Android guru,” Sundar Pichai. Pichai offered a glimpse at how Google envisions the future when he described how useful it would be if your car could sense that your child was now inside and automatically changed the music playlists accordingly. Here’s part of Carr’s response:

“With this offhand example, Pichai gives voice to Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption, which can be boiled down to this: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be ‘freed up’ to do something ‘more valuable.’ Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being. Pichai doesn’t seem able to comprehend that the essence, and the joy, of parenting may actually lie in all the small, trivial gestures that parents make on behalf of or in concert with their kids — like picking out a song to play in the car. Intimacy is redefined as inefficiency.”

But how do we come to know what should be automated? I’m not sure there’s a short answer to that question, but it’s safe to say that we’re going to need to think carefully about what we do and why we do it. Again, this is why I think Hannah Arendt was ahead of her time when she undertook the intellectual project that resulted in The Human Condition and the unfinished The Life of the Mind. In the first she set out to understand our doing and in the second, our thinking. And all of this in light of the challenges presented by emerging technological systems.

One of the upshots of new technologies, if we accept the challenge, is that they lead us to look again at what we might have otherwise taken for granted or failed to notice altogether. New communication technologies encourage us to think again about the nature of human communication. New medical technologies encourage us to think again about the nature of health. New transportation technologies encourage us to think again about the nature of place. And so on.

I had originally used the word “forced” where I settled for the word “encourage” above. I changed the wording because, in fact, new technologies don’t force us to think again about the realms of life they impact. It is quite easy, too easy perhaps, not to think at all, simply to embrace and adopt the new technology without thinking at all about its consequences. Or, what amounts to the same thing, it is just as easy to reject new technologies out of hand because they are new. In neither case would we be thinking at all. If we accept the challenge to think again about the world as new technologies cast aspects of it in a new light, we might even begin to see this development as a great gift by leading us to value, appreciate, and even love what was before unnoticed.

Returning to the animation schema, we might make a start at thinking by simply asking ourselves what exactly is displaced at each transition. When it comes to mechanization, it seems fairly straightforward. Mechanization, as I’m defining it, ordinarily displaces physical labor.

Capturing what exactly is displaced when it comes to automation is a bit more challenging. In part, this is because the distinctions I’m making between mechanization and automation on the one hand and automation and animation on the other are admittedly fuzzy. In fact, all three are often simply grouped together under the category of automation. This is a simpler move, but I’m concerned that we might not get a good grasp of the complex ways in which technologies interact with human action if we don’t parse things a bit more finely.

So let’s start by suggesting that automation, the stage at which machines operate without the need for constant human input and direction, displaces attention. When something is automated, I can pay much less attention to it, or perhaps, no attention at all. We might also say that automation displaces will or volition. When a process is automated, I don’t have to will its action.

Finally, animation– the stage at which machines not only act without direct human intervention, but also “learn” and begin to “make decisions” for themselves–displaces agency and judgment.

By noting what is displaced we can then ask whether the displaced element was an essential or inessential aspect of the good or end sought by the means, and so we might begin to arrive at some more humane conclusions about what ought to be automated.

I’ll leave things there for now, but more will be forthcoming. Right now I’ll leave you with a couple of questions I’ll be thinking about.

First, Borgmann distinguished between things and devices (see here or here). Once we move from automation to animation, do we need a new category?

Also, coming back to Arendt, she laid out two sets of three categories that overlap in interesting ways with the three stages as I’m thinking of them. In her discussion of human doing, she identifies labor, work, and action. In her discussion of human thinking, she identifies thought, will, and judgment. How can her theorizing of these categories help us understand what’s at stake in drive to automate and animate?