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December 18th 2016 print

Jenny Stewart

Up and Down with Technology

When I was teaching, I would try to get students to run their own reliability tests on the sundry internet sites they would plunder in their search for essay material. 'As with any information,' I would intone, 'we must ask who is putting it before us, and what is their motivation in doing so?'

univac“I don’t know what happened,” said the girl at the checkout desk. “The system is down. We’ll have to process you offline.”

“Yes, of course,” we say soothingly. “Computers have minds of their own, don’t they?”

Indeed they do. The experts keep talking about the wonders of AI (artificial intelligence). But there is surely some sort of computer-based intelligence there already, a bit sulky, and prone to strange behaviour at times, but when in a good mood, a most useful ally.

At their best, our various devices empower us. On the train, the carriage clicks, dings and carols to the sounds of mobile phones. “I’m on the train—just going past Woolies … now. Love you.” How else would we have found out that other people routinely say that they love each other? I am shamed by my relatively inhibited discourse.

Provided we remember to re-charge them, with a laptop or even just a cellphone we can work from just about anywhere. And where would we be without Google, the universal search engine that many credit with almost oracular powers? With its help, the vast network of computers known as the internet is capable of transporting us into worlds of—what exactly?

I was going to say “information”, but that is far too broad a term. Google may not be offering to predict the future (although I am sure the boys and girls at Google’s many labs are working on it). But provided you can formulate a more or less intelligible question (and even if you can’t) it will give you a reasonably clear answer, or even hundreds of answers. Admittedly, even if you Google yourself to the edge of blindness, most of the websites will say much the same thing, but many people will find that reassuring.

Indeed you can ask Google any sort of practical question, like how to remove coffee stains from your jeans, or when Elvis was born, and provided the cyber-traffic is not too intense, you will get an instant answer (interspersed with ever-increasing numbers of ads).

Beyond a context that you know, though, matters get a bit trickier. It’s a bit like asking for directions when you are in an unfamiliar place (clearly I am assuming that your global positioning system is not available). It’s usually only after you have blundered into the thing you were looking for, that the “you can’t miss it” directions make any sense.

Context is all. GPs talk drolly of competing with “Dr Google”. But if you are prone to hypochondria, Dr Google is not necessarily your best friend. Beyond the very basic stuff, anxious trawling of the internet for information on assorted symptoms is not recommended. We think we know what is going on, but many conditions have similar signs and symptoms. Even if you do self-diagnose accurately, you are soon placed in a human system that is programmed to work in certain ways, one of which is always to charge you more than you were expecting.

When I was teaching, I would try to get students to run their own reliability tests on the sundry internet sites they would plunder in their search for essay material.

“As with any information,” I would intone, “we must ask who is putting it before us, and what is their motivation in doing so?”

Wikipedia is good for an initial orientation, but after that, you have to find out stuff by yourself. Searching has been made much more intuitive—then comes the hard part of making some sort of sense of it all.

What—actually—do we know about technology? We know that it can be truly transformative. Printing, for example, was almost certainly the single most significant and also possibly the most benign technology ever invented, as it multiplied many times our power to communicate. If the monks and scribes who laboriously copied out documents by hand complained about being done out of a job, we have yet to hear of it.

It is no accident that the first thing ideologues, anywhere, try to do is to dramatise their rightness by destroying the other lot’s ideas. The Nazis burned Jewish books. Protestants and Catholics burned each other’s books. Islamists attack libraries. In the age of the internet, the Chinese government restricts access to websites it regards as subversive.

The business press is full of excited reportings of disruptive technologies. My son tells me we will, perhaps quite soon, be whisked from A to B by autonomous vehicles that will take us to our destination without any apparent human intervention. Even Uber, the so-called ride-sharing service that has decimated the taxi industry, will soon be able to do without its human contractors.

Computers never tire, they never get bored, and they never forget. With appropriate programming, they bring together vast amounts of data and the best decision-rules we can muster. As a result, we have information systems whose performance at specific tasks exceeds that of even the most sensational human practitioner. Computers routinely beat the best human chess players. Recently a computer beat the world’s best Go player.

Young entrepreneurs with high IQs who hang around Silicon Valley tell us that someday soon we will have solved the problem of intelligence itself, thereby ushering in a future in which humanity itself will be redundant. What price education, then? Will our children, or our children’s children, simply abandon the grim task of programming an organic robot (namely, ourselves) to do stuff, when there will be an app somewhere that will do it better? I saw an ad recently that was somewhat ominous. “Don’t just Google how to get a promotion,” it said, “come and do our MBA.”

Or will we continue to want to interact with other humans, rather than with machines? We are strange creatures. We already have the means for most of us to work from home, but we crave the human contact of work. And our bosses cannot bear for us to be out of their sight, so we continue dutifully to show up at the office where, surrounded by the latest gadgets, we work longer hours than we need to, to show our dedication.

Technology may enable us to do new things, but a good deal of it helps us to do more of the things with which we are already familiar. The impact may not be quite as labour-saving as we think. I remember my father telling me that the invention of the petrol-powered lawnmower was a mixed blessing, as it meant that hard-pressed suburban blokes like him had to mow much bigger areas of grass than previously.

Washing day used to be a symphonic occasion of boiling, banging and mangling. Thank goodness the old coppers were replaced by washing machines. I suspect, though, that one result is that clothes are washed far more frequently than they would otherwise have been.

The Greeks, as usual, foresaw it all. Prometheus stole fire from the gods, but was punished by being chained up while his liver was eaten by a giant eagle. And poor old Tithonus’s goddess girlfriend petitioned successfully for immortality on his behalf, but then forgot to stipulate that ageing should be delayed. Science is one thing, but when dealing with technology, you really do have to make sure you read the fine print.

We should be careful what we wish for. Thanks to modern medicine and improved nutrition, most of us can expect to live longer lives than our forebears. Yet we still want more. With gene-based therapies, it may be possible to prepare individualised treatments that will slow down the ageing process to the extent that most of us will live, in reasonable health, to well beyond a hundred. I am not altogether sure, though, that this would be a good thing. Imagine childhood and adolescence lasting forty years. The kids would never leave home.

One of the saving graces is that the nasty people eventually die. Having them around for even longer does not bear thinking about.

But of one thing I am certain. When the rest of humanity has long since disappeared up its own app, and the earth is about to be engulfed by the sun, there will still be blokes wearing hi-vis vests, digging up the roads.

Comments [13]

  1. Homer Sapien says:

    I’m not a fan of modern medicine. The key to longevity simply seems to be under eating and “primitive” meals. Not quite game enough to state that I’m a vegetarian as I might be placed on the ‘Left” ;-)

  2. Jody says:

    When teaching, I did caution students about Wiki (or anything on the net) and I still very much caution everybody about it today in my post-teaching life. Quite a bit of the material is just plain inaccurate and you can log in and edit items yourself! Try doing that to the books listed in the bibliography of any academic subject. Ergo: I still rely heavily on researched books, et. al. Wiki is like the old “Readers’ Digest” – providing manageable, coherent chunks for the dilettante, but with an interactive function. Avoid, unless you’re after an occupation, place and date of birth.

    To me the greatest downside to the internet is the pervasiveness of obnoxious people who destroy good conversations between intelligent people. And it proves there is absolutely no toleration of dissent. How often have I been ‘moderated out’ of “The Conversation” for daring to challenge the prevailing hegemony of the green Left!! Never for offence – just for disagreement with the ‘party line’ (which they deem ‘offensive’). Same with other sites; group-think has become the new world order and challenging the heterodoxy is perceived as the new trolling. It merely demonstrates to me how much anger and division exists out there in the world between the people who seem happy and well-adjusted and those who – in the main – feel aggrieved, deprived and resentful of others who are successful.

    Their toxicity is never going to make them feel better about themselves!!

    • ianl says:

      > “How often have I been ‘moderated out’ of “The Conversation” for daring to challenge the prevailing hegemony of the green Left”

      Jody, why would you expect anything else there ? Serious question, it puzzles me.

      • Jody says:

        Because I enjoy the challenge of making an intelligent, reasoned argument which is designed to make them actually think. There are, surprisingly, some who feel the same way as I do and who write accordingly – only to be moderated out a day or so later. To think that rag is “taxpayer funded”, though. That’s what gets me.

        • ianl says:

          That makes no sense at all, I’m afraid – but I do not dispute your absolute right to do this.

          My pointless “red rag” is being told ad nauseum that “Climate Change theory” has irrefutable empirical evidence but producing such evidence and allowing it to be tested is always refused on the grounds that “we don’t debate in public”. I know refuting this is akin to head banging on a brick wall (like expecting The Conversation to behave itself) but I have to really exert control when confronted with that non-sequitur. And that rubbish is tax-payer funded to billions of dollars annually.

          • Jody says:

            Whatever the view, you are entitled to it. That’s my point. I think I’m entitled to mine on “The Conversation” (could anything be less appropriately named?) or anywhere else. Dissenting opinion needs logical debate, not abuse and removal for daring to hold the view. I hope I’ve always conducted mine here with a degree of fairness, for that’s my aim.

    • Homer Sapien says:

      Jody, could there be a tad of toxicity in “dilettante” i e deplorables? I trust you don’t look down on us and make you feel better.

  3. Bill Martin says:

    A witty, enjoyable read, “voicing” the thoughts of many of us.

  4. Don A. Veitch says:

    IanL I was once told to ‘go away’ in a Quadrant discussion.
    We can all learn from all dissenters, as the ‘gadfly’ Socrates points out
    I am a conservative but do not accept that the green/left is the problem in the world. The left sold out, was smashed, years and years ago. The only sound you hear from the left is snouts sucking at the funds trough.

  5. Jody says:

    Jenny, I loved your subtle use of language in the heading to this essay: “up and down” with technology. Yes, it has a kind of orgasmic/sexual effect upon young people; they lovingly stroke their phones and gaze at them endlessly as though there were in love. There’s a kind of erotomania about all that. Eeeew. Unhealthy.

  6. Matt says:

    Ride-sharing… Business model predicated on flouting the law until it gets changed to suit the business. An idea that if any honest entrepreneur had come up with it they would instantly have rejected it. This is not the wonderful world of technology and ideas making our lives better. It is destruction of the rule of law. As for driverless cars… Driverless passenger trains and aircraft would be technologically much simpler and could be very easily done with technology that is available here and now. But it has not happened. It hasn’t happened for very good reasons. The same reasons why driverless cars are an even worse idea. Driverless haul trucks within the confines of a mine is fine. But sharing peak hour with driverless cars. Forget it.

    If paper had just been invented it would be considered a breakthrough. Am still waiting to be able to buy an e-ink reader in A3 size with enough resolution so I can read magazines with a paper-like reflective display and in the typesetting layout in which they were published. For that matter, still waiting to be able to go down to the local mobile phone shop and buy an e-ink display phone that I can read in full sunlight with my sunglasses on. Still waiting for an A0 size display with enough resolution to replace the need for engineering drawing prints (about 200Mpixels). Viewing detailed engineering drawings with current display technology is like looking at the world through a toilet roll.

    Have just now, after 20 years of waiting for this feature, bought a phone with a function where I can press a button that tells the phone to ‘go to sleep and automatically wake up in an hour’. It’s amazing how long it can take some industries to implement some basic and obvious ideas. Took the car industry about sixty years or more to address the most common cause of flat batteries –leaving the headlights on — by simply automatically turning them off when the ignition key was removed. Something which is now standard but could have been implemented in the Model T.

    Most of the challenge with using modern technology seems to be not so much about figuring out how to do something but rather going round and round in circles trying to do something simple (like turn off the dial kepypad tones on an iphone without silencing the whole phone, or turn off the outgoing SMS sound effect without also turning off the incoming alert) only to discover that this simple feature is actually not possible. All this frustration from the world’s largest company with effectively unlimited resources. ‘Google, take me to the train station.’ Duh, no can do. It just goes on and on. Personally I just don’t understand all the hype and enthusiasm for modern technology. By and large it is half-baked.

    I would contend that the last truly amazing technological breakthrough and subsequent mass-market commoditisation was the GPS system, and that was a long time ago. Mobile phones come a close second, but the cost of calls has taken thirty years to come down to where they should be. Mobile phones were predicted by Agent 86. GPS was essentially not predicted and is still an awe-inspiring system that relies on Einstein’s general relativity to make it work — and it’s free to the world courtesy of the US taxpayer .

    • ianl says:

      > “Mobile phones were predicted by Agent 86″

      Dick Tracy, actually.

      BTW, displays at high res for A0 size of real drawings, maps, plans etc are available (for some years now) but the price is astronomical. Most of us settle for A1.