Bambi, technology, and avoiding death

An excerpt from Sherry Turkle’s new book recalls a conversation about how technology could help us move beyond death and attachment to people:

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What was wrong with Bambi? Every kid sees Bambi. Marvin’s response has stayed with me for half a lifetime: “Bambi indoctrinates children to think that death matters. Someday we will conquer death by merging with computers. Such attachments—Bambi’s attachment to his mother, for example—will be unimportant. People need to learn to give that stuff up.” I knew Marvin to be a loving father and husband. But in his mind, attachment would only be an impediment to progress in a world where people and machines evolved together.

Marvin Minsky died in 2016. But I’m still fighting his idea, now more than ever part of the cultural mainstream, that it is good to have devices that can wean us from our dependency on one another. For Marvin, the burdens that come with human bonds were unnecessary and inefficient because an engineering solution was on the horizon—we are ultimately going to mate with machines or evolve into machines or become one with machines.

These ideas are seductive. Of course we want technology to bring us sharper wits and a cure for Parkinson’s. We like the idea that some kind of artificial intelligence can help monitor the safety of isolated elders. And then we are caught short. There is a red line—one I have seen so many people cross. It’s the line when you don’t want children to get attached to their mortal mothers because they should be ready to bond with their eternal robot minders. It’s the line where you take your child as your experimental subject and ignore her, registering her tears as data. It’s the line you cross when one of your classmates commits suicide by jumping out a window and you joke about the laws of physics that were at work in his descent. It’s the line you cross when you know that the car you manufacture has a design flaw and a certain kind of impact will kill its passengers. You’ll have to pay damages for their lives. What is the cost of their lives in relation to that of redesigning the car? This is the kind of thinking that treats people as things. Knowing how to criticize it is becoming more pressing as social media and artificial intelligence insert themselves into every aspect of our lives, because as they do, we are turned into commodities, data that is bought and sold on the marketplace.

At the very moment we are called to connect to the earth and be stewards of our planet, we are intensifying our connection to objects that really don’t care if humanity dies. The urgent move, I think, is in the opposite direction.

The idea of progress through technology is fairly ingrained in the American consciousness. But, is this the sort of progress people want? Death – and social interaction – comes to all people and leaning it these features in life might just lead to better lives.

At the end of this section, Turkle appeals to the environmental movement to help people back toward conversations about social interactions, empathy, and death. It would be interesting to see who from different arenas would be interested in joining a movement back toward empathy and human understanding. Numerous religious traditions? Humanities scholars? Proponents of democracy? People who own small businesses? There is a chance here to make common cause across groups that may be further apart on other polarizing issues.

Sherry Turkle on the loneliness of our current era

Sherry Turkle has studied human-technology interactions for decades. As she releases a new book about her own life, Turkle summed up our current situation:

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That’s where I think [Victor] Turner [the cultural anthropologist who talks about “liminal spaces”] is so helpful. In the betwixt and between moments—these liminal moments—when the old rules don’t count anymore, and the communities the people belong to break down. That’s where we are now. We’re alone. We thought we identified with a certain kind of Americanness, and now, no. The communities we belonged to don’t make sense to us the way they did before. Organizations we belonged to we now see, well, that might’ve been a racist organization. Things are up for grabs. I saw that in May of 1968, and I see that now. That’s a moment of deep loneliness, and deep anguish. And I think we’re going to come out of this and really have an opportunity to create new kinds of bonds and new kinds of friendships and new kinds of affiliations. We’re so yearning for each other, and the boundaries that we usually put up with each other are much more permeable. And I think that there’s a possibility for very deep connection. That’s my good news story. I think when we emerge, we’re going to look at each other and say, “Well, what are we going to do next?”

The development of mass media, television, computers, the Internet, and social media have contributed to feeling alone. At the same time, trust in institutions has declined, people are engaged less in communities, individualism and autonomy are prized, and inequality is visible.

As Turkle asks, is the answer in more technology? Chat bots? Robots living among us? Friendlier social media? Or, a return to embodied interactions and engaging other humans? In her earlier work, Turkle describes the differences in interactions people have with technology opposed to people. She describes some of that again earlier in the interview:

He wanted my comment: Why are all of these people talking to Replika in the middle of the pandemic? They’re all using it as a friend, as a therapist, this thing where you’re talking to a machine. So, not to be a spoilsport, I decided to see what’s up. So I go online and I make a Replika. I make as nice a Replika as I can possibly make, and I said, “I want to talk to you about the thing that’s most on my mind.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I say, “OK, well, I’m lonely. Can you talk to me about loneliness? I’m living here alone. I’m managing, but I’m lonely.” It says, “Oh, absolutely.” So I said, “OK, well, what do you know about loneliness?” And she says, “It’s warm and fuzzy.”

I thought, this is too stupid. This must be a bug. But I got back to the New York Times reporter and I said, look, if you want to talk about your problems, if you’re lonely, if you’re fearing death—you really have to talk to somebody who has a body. It has to be somebody with some skin in the game. Pretend empathy is not what people need right now. And pretend empathy is what it is. If we just give our children and ourselves pretend empathy, we’re in risk of losing our sensibility for how important the real thing is. I think that’s a big danger. That we get so enamored with what machines can do that we forget what only people can do.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reassess these patterns. And the common prediction seems to be that people will very much enjoy interaction again after COVID-19 fades away. But, how long will this last? Will we try to return to pre-COVID normal or dig deeper to restore human connections? In a society enamored with technology, it can be hard to imagine this path back even in the wake of a global pandemic.

Lawns as sources of and signs of boredom

In a discussion of the development of the concept of boredom in The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch explores the boredom of the lawn:

This world is lost to many of our children, and to ourselves. Even the “nature” that surrounds many of our homes is shallow in a technological way. A typical suburban lawn depends on many technological devices, each of which makes something far easier than it was for previous generations: lawn mowers, pesticides and fertilizers, highly refined seed, and automatic sprinklers. The lawn itself is a kind of outdoor technological device, composed of uniform green grass, kept crew-cut short, with little variety or difference.

A peasant family in the Middle Ages had none of this technologically uniform pleasantness. They would not have had a lawn, or possibly even a yard. Their children would have wandered out into meadows and perhaps the thin edges of forests. A meadow has countless different species of grasses and other plants, plus flowers in the spring and summer, of different heights and habits. If you pay attention, you cannot possible get bored in a meadow. It is all too easy to be bored on a lawn…

It is surely not coincidental that all the earliest citations of the word bore in the Oxford English Dictionary – from the mid-eighteenth century – come from the correspondence of aristocrats and nobility. They did not have technology, but thanks to wealth and position they had a kind of easy everywhere of their own. The first people to be bored were the people who did not do manual work, who did not cook their own food, whose lives were served by others. They were also, by the way, the very first people to have lawns. (144-145)

The common American lawn is indeed a peculiar piece of “nature.”

The connection between lawns and technology is helpful, particularly since this link is likely lost amidst all the new technology of recent decades. Yet, having a lush and short lawn requires a lot of tools and innovation that many now take for granted. I’m reminded of running into advertisements between competing grass seeds: there is a lot that goes into the components of the lawn.

It also strikes me that the lawn has become increasingly boring in recent decades. It is true that American children in the last 70 years had very different experiences with nature than Middle Age peasant children (though humans have affected nature throughout history and contexts). At the same time, children today spend less time outdoors and utilize those boring lawns even compared to just a few decades ago. Perhaps we could argue that the lawn never offered much and once the world of television, video games, and fears about safety set in, it was exposed for the boring item it really is.

Finally, the lawn continues to be a status symbol just as it once marked the properties of the wealthy. Those with lawns have pressure to keep their lawns free of weeds and leaves and can differentiate their lawn from those of others. Failing to follow these norms can lead to problems.

Bigger American houses limit energy efficiency

A new Pew report looks at how the growing size of American homes affects energy efficiency:

U.S. homes have become considerably more energy-efficient over the past four decades, according to government data. But homes also are a lot bigger than they used to be, and their growing girth wipes out nearly all the efficiency gains.

According to preliminary figures from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the average U.S. home used 101,800 British thermal units (Btu) of energy per square foot in 2012, the most recent year with available data. That’s 31% less than in 1970, after adjusting for weather effects and efficiency improvements in electricity generation…

While some homeowners do add onto their existing structures, the trend is driven largely by new construction. According to the Census Bureau, the average new single-family house completed last year was 2,657 square feet – 57% larger than four decades earlier. While the biggest new homes are being built in the South (an average of 2,711 square feet last year), home sizes have grown the most in the Northeast: a 64% increase in average new-home size over the past four decades…

What all of this means is that, after dropping sharply during the 1970s, the overall energy intensity of U.S. homes has changed little over the past three decades. Energy intensity is a metric that compares the amount of energy used against some unit of economic activity – households, in the case of the residential sector.

A logical question at the end of this is to ask what should be done in response. One line of argument would suggest Americans should cut their home size. When they build and purchase larger homes, they use more energy than they probably need to consume. (This is in addition to other arguments against building larger houses.) On the other hand, I imagine some would argue that we will continue to see gains in energy efficiency through technology and this will soon reduce energy use even in spite of larger homes. This second argument may be more appealing to many as then Americans could get even bigger homes and we get to utilize the benefits of technological progress.

“The digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness”

Having access to technology isn’t necessarily the same as knowing what it can do or feeling comfortable with it, as a new study suggests:

A new survey suggests that the digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness. It found that nearly 30% of Americans either aren’t digitally literate or don’t trust the Internet. That subgroup tended to be less educated, poorer, and older than the average American.

In contrast, says Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved in the study, those with essential Web skills “tend to be the more privileged. And so the overall story … is that it’s the people who are already privileged who are reaping the benefits here.”

The study was conducted by John Horrigan, an independent researcher, and released 17 June at an event sponsored by the Washington, D.C.–based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Funded by the Joyce Foundation, the study of 1600 adults measured their grasp of terms like “cookie” and “Wi-Fi.” It asked them to rate how confident they were about using a desktop or laptop or a smart phone to find information, as well as how comfortable they felt about using a computer. Of those who scored low in these areas, about half were not Internet users.

Horrigan believes that policymakers have ignored the problem of digital readiness while concentrating on providing people with access to the Internet and the necessary hardware. Relatively little attention has been paid to teaching people the necessary skills to take advantage of online classes and job searches, he maintains.

It can take quite a while to feel comfortable with new technology, particularly for those not immersed in it. The problem may be compounded by the relative speed of new technologies and their increasingly fast spread throughout the population.

It would be interesting to then see the differences in productivity, comfort, and acquisition of information (or whatever other metric you want to use to measure technology use) among different groups. Imagine we measured improved efficiency in life from using new technology amongst three groups: power users, average users, and non- or limited-users. I imagine we would get a classic Matthew Effect graph where the power users would be able to expand their initial advantages at a higher rate than others.

Singapore, other countries, looking to tackle smartphone addiction

Here is a quick overview of concerns about smartphone addiction in Singapore, East Asia, and the United States:

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.

Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-06-singapore-grapples-smartphone-addiction.html#jCp

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.

Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-06-singapore-grapples-smartphone-addiction.html#jCp

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem…

In the United States, where there are similar concerns about the impact of smartphones on society, a 65 percent penetration rate would not even make the top five in Asia Pacific…

In terms of physical symptoms, more people are reporting “text neck” or “iNeck” pain, according to Tan Kian Hian, a consultant at the anaesthesiology department of Singapore General Hospital…

In South Korea, a government survey in 2013 estimated that nearly 20 percent of teenagers were addicted to smartphones…

A group of undergraduates from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University launched a campaign late last year encouraging the public to put their smartphones in a face-down position when they are with loved ones.

A fascinating topic to watch moving forward with two separate pieces:

1. All technological innovations invite praise and criticism but, of course, it takes some time to observe and think through the long-term effects. In today’s world, we tend to be on the acceptance side of new technology, viewing it as helpful progress that we would be silly to not use to our advantage.

2. This opens up new areas for conversations about addiction. What exactly constitutes smartphone addiction? What happens if large chunks of society are addicted to smartphones? How should it be treated?

My quick guess is that this won’t lead to many fruitful conversations about technology – we’re quite gung-ho at this point – but there will likely be a variety of approaches to smartphone addiction that could vary quite a bit by country and in effectiveness.

Argument: the problem isn’t technology as it is our choice how to respond

One writer suggests humans can no longer escape technology so we had better get used to resisting it:

The phone isn’t the problem. The problem is us—our inability to step away from email and games and inessential data, our inability to look up, be it at an alpine lake or at family members. We won’t be able to get away from it all for very much longer. So it’s vitally important that each of us learns how to live with a persistent connection, everywhere we go, whether it’s in the wilderness or at a dinner party.

I still love the wilderness, and I can’t wait for my next trip to the backcountry—to walk for miles without crossing a road, without fielding a call or an email or a tweet. To once again drink deeply from a mountain stream. And to stretch out under the open sky at night, gaze up at the stars, and use my phone to name each and every one.

The argument here is that the technology itself is not the problem but rather how it is used that matters. Used well, it can enhance our experiences, bringing knowledge or social connections that otherwise would be impossible. Used poorly, it can become addicting and distract us from what is going on in front of us.

Two possible issues with this line of thinking:

1. Those who are younger, even right after birth, only know a world immersed in technology. They may never see technology is bad or really not know of scenarios when it is unavailable.

2. This ignores the social pressure of having to have and use technology. Sure, individuals can make choices but the people around you will push you to use what is available. Perhaps the trick is to find friends who also don’t want to use technology much.

At the least, many of us will need to be taught how to resist technology. What might we gain, or perhaps even more importantly given loss aversion, why don’t we lose by not using technology? Given our society’s emphasis on efficiency and progress, this is becoming harder and harder.

Turning Apple’s brand and products into a religion

A new book lays out how Steve Jobs transformed Apple into a religion:

Jobs’ Zen master Kobun Chino told him that he “could keep in touch with his spiritual side while running a business.” So in true Zen fashion, Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic terms. But what really set him apart was his ability to educate the public about personal computing in both practical and mythic ways.

The iconography of the Apple computer company, the advertisements, and the device screens of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad are visual expressions of Jobs’ imaginative marriage of spiritual science and modern technology…

Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how to live the “good life” in the technological age…

Jobs embraced elliptical thinking as a means of promoting technology objects that pose their own paradoxes. In the Apple narrative, the seemingly oppositional notions of assimilation/isolation and freedom/enslavement are resolved by Apple’s invocation of enlightened paradox.

Others have also made this argument: see this 2011 post as well as this 2012 post.  Claiming a brand is like a religion could be an analysis of a secular age (this piece suggests we traded gods for technological progress and consumerism) or it could be a slam against followers who blindly follow a brand (certain brands may inspire higher levels of devotion yet not all inspiring brands are accused of inspiring religious-like followings).

Yet, beyond Apple, wouldn’t most, if not all brands, aspire to this kind of devotion? Religion implies a devoted set of followers who are willing to participate in rituals, of which the most important is buying the new product. Evangelism, telling others about the products and brand, might also be high on this list. Another key is that brand followers and users think they are participating in a transcendent experience.

US government behind in regulating automated features for cars

As car makers pursue new technologies including driverless cars, the US government is struggling to keep up with the changes:

While truly self-driving cars are years away—if they ever arrive—consumers are seeing far more car models bearing sophisticated semi-autonomous features. These include radar assisted cruise-control, which can keep a fixed distance from the car ahead; systems that warn drivers if they veer out of their lanes; and technologies that can prevent oversteering or even apply the brakes when they detect that a crash is imminent (see “Self-Driving Tech Veers into Mid-Range Cars” and “Proceed With Caution Toward the Self-Driving Car”)…

With three states and the District of Columbia having passed legislation to allow researchers to test such prototypes on real roads, Washington is grappling with how to regulate the cars. John Capp, the director of active safety systems for General Motors, says federal regulators are “trying to understand these things and trying to figure out what role they should have.”…

Unsurprisingly, NHTSA’s statement said that fully autonomous technology isn’t ready for the general public. But the fact that the agency is calling for more study is a reminder of the glacial pace of regulation: in the case of lane-departure warnings and crash-avoidance systems, it’s studying technologies that have already been on the market for several years.

See my post last week on the NHSTA statement. More broadly, this raises interesting questions about technology and the ability of regulators to keep up. For those who want to push technology forward, how much in terms of time, convenience, and dollars is lost if the government slows down the process? At the same time, how much regulation is needed to help protect the public? There is likely some sort of sweet spot when the government has time to declare technology safe and inventors and producers can still get things to the public in a reasonable amount of time…but I suspect this could vary widely across different sectors and the politics involved could change quite a bit. Take, for example, the scandal a few years back involving Toyota and the lack of findings. It cost the company quite a bit, the government still had a duty to step in, but there was little conclusion – except that perhaps we’re all going to have black boxes in our cars  soon. Imagine a few incidents like this happening with a new widespread technology like driverless cars. How much could that set the industry back and feed perceptions that the technology really wasn’t ready?

Kenya plans new Konza Technology City dubbed “Africa’s Silicon Savannah”

Kenya is planning an ambitious new city intended to be a technology center:

Located almost 40 miles south-east of the capital Nairobi, Konza Technology City is expected to create more than 20,000 IT jobs by 2015, and around 200,000 jobs by the time it’s completed in 2030.

The 2011-hectare site will have a residential area comprising around 37,000 homes to accommodate 185,000 people…

“It is expected to spur massive trade and investment as well as create thousands of employment opportunities for young Kenyans,” said Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki at the groundbreaking ceremony.

The project, which is part of the government’s Vision 2030 initiative to improve the Kenya’s infrastructure, is also set to include a university campus, hotels, schools, hospitals and research facilities.

Sounds impressive. See more at the city’s official website which includes this overview of the history of the project:

The idea and interest for an African Silicon Savannah in Kenya was first inspired by trends in Business Processing Outsourcing and Information Technology Enabled Services (BPO/ITES), which showed a global offshore BPO/ITES revenue estimated at US$ 110 billion in 2010 and a projected three fold growth to reach US$ 300 billion by 2015.

Currently there over 2.8 million people employed in this sub-sector world wide, however, statistics show that Africa only attracts about 1 % of the total revenues accruing from this growing industry. Only a few African countries have made effort to develop this industry; South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Ghana and Mauritius have each launched national programs to grow BPO/ITES.

It became clear that Kenya stood a good chance to attract a sizeable chunk of the expected growth in the off shoring BPO/ITES trade revenues if the Government took lead in the development of this industry.

Now we just have to wait a while to see how it all turns out. I’m not saying it will turn out badly but what if it does – who is responsible for the costs and how might this affect the technology sector in Africa?

While the term “Silicon Savannah” sounds catchy, does having such a name help the prospects for the project? I imagine it could appeal to some with the imagery of connecting Silicon Valley and Africa but it also seems derivative and something plenty of other places have tried.