Fit the Tool to the Person, Not the Person to the Tool

I recently had a conversation with a student about the ethical quandaries raised by the advent of self-driving cars. Hypothetically, for instance, how would a self-driving car react to a pedestrian who stepped out in front of it? Whose safety would it be programmed to privilege?

The relatively tech-savvy student was unfazed. Obviously this would only be a problem until pedestrians were forced out of the picture. He took it for granted that the recalcitrant human element would be eliminated as a matter of course in order to perfect the technological system. I don’t think he took this to be a “good” solution, but he intuited the sad truth that we are more likely to bend the person to fit the technological system than to design the system to fit the person.

Not too long ago, I made a similar observation:

… any system that encourages machine-like behavior from its human components, is a system poised to eventually eliminate the human element altogether. To give it another turn, we might frame it as a paradox of complexity. As human beings create powerful and complex technologies, they must design complex systemic environments to ensure their safe operation. These environments sustain further complexity by disciplining human actors to abide by the necessary parameters. Complexity is achieved by reducing human action to the patterns of the system; consequently, there comes a point when further complexity can only be achieved by discarding the human element altogether. When we design systems that work best the more machine-like we become, we shouldn’t be surprised when the machines ultimately render us superfluous.

A few days ago, Elon Musk put it all very plainly:

“Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk believes that cars you can control will eventually be outlawed in favor of ones that are controlled by robots. The simple explanation: Musk believes computers will do a much better job than us to the point where, statistically, humans would be a liability on roadways [….] Musk said that the obvious move is to outlaw driving cars. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ Musk said. ‘You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.'”

Mind you, such a development, were it to transpire, would be quite a boon for the owner of a company working on self-driving cars. And we should also bear in mind Dale Carrico’s admonition “to consider what these nonsense predictions symptomize in the way of present fears and desires and to consider what present constituencies stand to benefit from the threats and promises these predictions imply.”

If autonomous cars become the norm and transportation systems are designed to accommodate their needs, it will not have happened because of some force inherent in the technology itself. It will happen because interested parties will make it happen, with varying degrees of acquiescence from the general public.

This was precisely the case with the emergence of the modern highway system that we take for granted. Its development was not a foregone conclusion. It was heavily promoted by government and industry. As Walter Lippmann observed during the 1939 World’s Fair, “General motors has spent a small fortune to convince the american public that if it wishes to enjoy the full benefit of private enterprise in motor manufacturing, it will have to rebuild its cities and its highways by public enterprise.”

Consider as well the film below produced by Dow Chemicals in support of the 1956 Federal Aid-Highway Act:

Whatever you think about the virtues or vices of the highway system and a transportation system designed premised on the primacy the automobile, my point is that such a system did not emerge in a cultural or political vacuum. Choices were made; political will was exerted; money was spent. So it is now, and so it will be tomorrow.

Sex Sells Tech, Still

Yesterday, The New Republic posted “Baudrillard and Babes at the Consumer Electronics Show,” Lydia DePillis’ account of her time at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show. I found the piece slightly less engaging than Matt Honan’s reflections from around this time last year on the 2012 show; reflections which, because they honed in on the fabrication of desire, spoke to something more abiding than the electronics on display. (For links to Honan’s piece, Kevin Kelly’s response, and my own two cents, see “Hole In Our Hearts.”)

But DePillis’ reporting was not without its own commentary on desire. Interestingly, she suggested that, “CES is what a World’s Fair might look like if brands were more important than countries.” This is not far from the mark, but, in fact, as early as 1939, this was already true of the world’s fairs; pavilions by Ford, GE, GM, and other large companies were the real stars of the show. But the fairs provided another interesting/depressing antecedent to the CES that DePillis could have noted.

DePillis’ devotes a few paragraphs to the infamous Booth Babes at CES, and I’ll quote her at length:

MUCH OF THE CES sales force is made up of company staff, who’ve flown in for the show. A good chunk of it, however, is employed for three days only. This latter group, it can safely be said, are hired more for their come-hither qualities than their knowledge of electronics. CES is only marginally less male dominated today than it was in the 1970s. Booth Babes (“brand ambassadors,” in industry parlance) have been an integral part of the show for decades. Regulars had noticed a downturn in recent years, and criticism reached a crescendo in 2012, as the head of the CEA failed to even acknowledge that there might be something mildly distasteful and backwards about using women as props—especially for an industry ostensibly forging into the future.

This year, however, the babes were out in force. At the Chinese phonemaker ZTE, they wore white fur and flesh-colored heels over silver sheath dresses; one stood by the door of a tiny room, luring showgoers in to dance around in front of a green screen that demonstrated a new video technology. At xi3’s booth, women in black catsuits and heavy eye makeup explained the virtues of their employer’s compact servers over pounding hip-hop. Some of the babes aren’t even stationed at booths, instead roaming around in guerrilla bands promoting products.

If CES’s geeky male regulars are so inured to electronics promotions that they don’t crane their necks, it’s not apparent. “I need a t-shirt like that,” leered one portly man to his companion upon spotting a troop of women, their midriffs-baring t-shirts emblazoned with #me on the front and a web service’s URL on the back. “I need what’s in the t-shirt,” his friend cracked back.

Sometimes, it’s not the babes’ job to talk at all. Two statuesque women in red gowns simply stood at the entrance to LG’s show floor all day, their faces impassive. At SIGMA Photo, a model teetered on high pumps and gyrated, her long hair disheveled, as men took turns taking her picture with a giant camera. At Hyper, which sells well-designed battery chargers and external hard drives, I wondered what the four models wearing only g-strings and body paint thought about for hours on end, as people posed for pictures in front of them.

“We just zone out,” said the orange-and-blue girl as she left the booth in sweatpants at the end of the day. “We’re used to being looked at,” explained her silver-painted companion.

It’s a living. The ladies—and some men—list themselves with agencies or just on free sites like Craigslist or ModelMayhem.com, which lets prospective employers shop by waist and cup size and whether you’re willing to pose nude. Trade shows pay between $20 and $50 an hour, they told me. CES has such demand that companies fly models in from California and further afield, putting them up at downmarket places like the Excalibur. “If money’s no object, they want who they want,” said one smokey-eyed platinum blonde from Indianapolis, who’d been told to wear “business attire” for her gig with a maker of protective gadget cases. “The Supertooth booth, over there, they hired the Fantasy Strippers.”

In this respect, the CES is exactly like the world’s fairs.* Here is historian Robert Rydell describing the role played by world’s fairs in transitioning American society from an economy of production to one of consumption:

“Fundamental to this effort was an assault on remaining vestiges of values that were associated with what some historians have called a ‘culture of production.’ To hasten the dissolution of this older emphasis on restraint and inhibition, already under siege by world’s fairs at the beginning of the century and by the steady barrage of advertising that saturated the country during the 1920s, world’s fair builders injected their fantasies of progress with equally heavy doses of technological utopianism and erotic stimulation.”

We’re more familiar with the technological utopianism of the world’s fairs; the manner in which this technological utopianism was alloyed to erotic representations is less commonly noted. For example, Norman Bel Geddes, who famously designed Futurama, the fair’s most popular exhibit, also designed “Crystal Lassies,” “A Peep Show of Tomorrow.” Rydell continues:

“As if to liberate these fantasies from their Victorian moorings, exposition promoters gave increasing prominence to female striptease performances on exposition midways that, by the end of the decade, gave way to fully nude female performers in shows replete with world-of-tomorrow themes.”

Of course, this makes a great deal of sense. Chastity is to sexual desire what thrift is to economic desire. Rydell goes on:

“By suffusing the world of tomorrow with highly charged male sexual fantasies, the century-of-progress expositions not only reconfirmed the status of women as objects of desire, but represented their bodies as showcases that perfectly complemented displays of futuristic consumer durables everywhere on exhibit at the fairs.”

We know sex sells. This is a commonplace in our society. But we often think it operates by association. Pair the model with the car and somehow the attraction to the model will infuse the car. Perhaps. But some marketers appear to have understood the relationship somewhat differently. Eliminate restraint in one domain and you will eliminate it in the other as well.

In any case, sex and technology have been paired in the modern (pre-dominantly male) imagination for quite some time. A dynamic, I might add, which was also on display, though less commented on, in the photo spread for Kevin Kelly’s much discussed essay on our robotic future in Wired. In this respect, DePellis, like Honan, found something quite universal at play among the ephemera of the Consumer Electronics Show.

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*Most of the following three paragraphs taken from an earlier post.

Photo by Peter Yang
Photo by Peter Yang