Smart technology, helpless people

Friday, December 22, 2017

Most of us have seen the commercials. A concerned parent trying to throw a birthday party for his kid simply cannot do it without the help of Alexa, the “intelligent personal assistant” device provided by Amazon. For everything from finding the nearest store to scheduling activities, this wonderful piece of technology allows its user to relinquish personal responsibility and critical thinking, since Alexa can do it all for you. Then we have Google Assistant, which can do everything Alexa can and more, including gathering information about objects in a room through its camera - not creepy at all.

We live in a society largely dependent upon “smart technology.” We have smartphones in our pockets, linking us to the world via social media, and acting as do-it-alls, from taking photos and videos to translating languages, finding directions, and telling us the weather. We have smart TVs, which bridge the gap between television and Internet. We have smart refrigerators that let you see whether your food is fresh without even having to open the door, create custom temperature-controlled environments, and connect to the Internet to find similar food items to the ones you have, or look at your fridge’s level of power usage. We even have smart homes, where an automated system can be implemented throughout your house, controlling everything from light, heat, air conditioning, and washers/dryers, and connecting it all to the Internet, while using your smartphone or tablet computer as remote controls or gateways to the digital interface. It all sounds so advanced. So convenient.

Except, you know, for the fact that it’s destroying us. Before I elaborate on that point, however, let me first address a very immediate danger: that of surveillance. You see, smartphones have cameras and microphones that the government can turn on at any given time, to record or listen in. As for smart TVs, well, if you own one, you’re already being watched; companies track customers through the cameras on these TVs, and the government can turn them into bugging devices as well (this came out in WikiLeaks material showing that the CIA was behind this). As for smart appliances and smart homes, the same rules apply, and are probably being implemented already. So why do I refer to this all as “danger”? Because the fact that you are being watched, and information is being collected on you, a supposedly free American citizen, creates a dangerous and fascistic precedent. Already, those who speak out against atrocities committed by our government and its clandestine technological projects are being added to watchlists, harassed, threatened, and sometimes, eliminated. And this danger will only grow in the future. As capitalism allows data to be collected for “consumer information,” so too does fascism allow people to be watched, lest they speak out against “the Homeland.”

A more long-term danger, but nevertheless a critical one, is that smart technology is dumbing us down. Qualities like critical thinking, deduction and reasoning, discernment, skepticism, and resourcefulness are already dwindling in the average citizen. This will eventually result in a hive-like society of zombies who depend upon their smartphones for directions, their Google Assistant for information, and Alexa to tell them the weather. Already, we are taught to “Google things,” instead of conducting actual research, and believe so-called “news” bytes on social media from unverified sources rather than seeking evidence in order to develop informed opinions. Smart technology isn’t improving this already growing problem. Already, an iPhone does our math for us, translates a language so we don’t have to learn it, and sets appointments and reminders for us so we no longer need to use our memories.

Expect this to worsen if society keeps headed in this direction. Already, things like mob mentality, emotional bias, virtue signaling, narcissism, infantilism, dependency, and emancipation from morality and discipline are the driving forces behind so many of my fellow “Millennials.” We have exchanged wholesale our individuality and critical thinking for information and solutions to problems at our fingertips. And it’s very difficult to argue convincingly against this to consumers of smart products, as these pieces of tech seem so forward-thinking and efficient, but in reality, the skills and instincts built into us in order to survive and thrive are being pushed out, leaving us helpless without the technology upon which we depend.

We can find a dire warning about the sort of future this behavior creates, all the way back in Plato’s The Republic, Book IV, circa 380 B.C. Of today’s unfettered, ignorant behavior, it was said that eventually, the problems would “imperceptibly penetrate into manners and customs. From there, it invades contracts between” one person and another, “and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions, ending at last by an overthrow of all rights, private as well as public. If amusements become lawless, and the youth themselves become lawless, they can never grow up into well-conducted and virtuous citizens.”

What Plato, I think, did not foresee, was the utter enthusiasm with which young people would commit societal mass suicide, running headlong at this “great technology” with slack-jawed grins on their faces, hands outstretched as they scrabble at their new iPhones, hearts aflutter with the expectation of instant gratification. “Look, everyone! The iPhone can turn on just by reading your face! Isn’t that wonderful?” And the zombified consumer, eyes alight but unseeing, critical thinking long abandoned, is thrilled and impressed.

You see, I’m not just totally bashing technology like some post-modern Luddite. The logic that drove the use of technology decades ago allowed that technology to, in turn, pave the way for innovation and industry. In the 19th and 20th centuries, technology meant jobs, functionality, and cultural development. It had an instrinsic relationship with labor, whereas today, technology actively serves to slowly replace labor (human labor, at least). The inherent industriousness demanded by technology in prior decades has now been swapped out for laziness. Technological inventions of previous centuries served a purpose, and they only offered convenience and comfort in limited amounts, rather than trying to use these qualities to supplant those of hard work, critical thinking, and autonomy. “Smart technology” is driven by “artificial intelligence,” and both of these quoted terms are examples of the dichotomous nomenclature that is being used to deceive people into buying into them. It is very much a perversion of technology that once served a wholesome and helpful purpose, and which entertained without stupefying, provided without becoming addictive, etc.

So what are we to do? Well, that’s certainly the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I myself own a smartphone, as do most people, and I enjoy certain things like Google Chromecast, but by no means do I ever allow myself to become dependent upon any of this technology. I drastically limit my cellphone use (and feel no sense of loss in doing so); I’ve probably sent about 20 texts and made 2 calls on it since the beginning of November, and I’ve only used the Internet on it to check into Facebook or make a few Instagram posts a handful of times. The last time I used my Chromecast was to binge-watch Game of Thrones on a larger screen, and I haven’t had any need for it since then.

It’s fine to use some of this as you need it, and for most working people in normal environments, it’s impractical and/or impossible to completely disentangle yourself from this pesky web of smart technology, but what you can do is to make sure that you stay smart. Reduce your exposure, never get too caught up in all this (trust me, none of it is going to last in the long run), and don’t let yourself be addicted to something that serves no practical or intellectual purpose. The need to have something “right this second” should never trump the need to self-educate or to do honest and legitimate work to find answers and solutions to problems in life. If we entrusted the building and strengthening of civilization to Google, we’d all be quite doomed.

No comments:

Post a Comment