Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Matrix Pre-Visited (Or Technological Me)

"Wasn't technology supposed to make our lives easier?"
my mother asked me as I ranted.
Like any self-respecting nerd, I read a lot of science fiction when I was a young man (and still do when I can).

In retrospect, I suppose I liked it because it provided a framework within which you could ask “what if?”

Because it required the suspension of disbelief, it allowed for all kinds of explorations, and not just technological ones.

It also encouraged the reader to think about the future, about the future consequences of present day actions, trends and decisions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future this week, particularly as it was smacking me over the head all weekend.

What brought this all about was a final break with the past, and by that I mean our old DSL connection to the Internet. Yes, we were the turtle-like “Slowskis” portrayed in Comcast Xfinity commercials, trying to convince ourselves, and anyone gullible enough to listen, that we didn’t mind slow loading of our web pages.

But it got so bad that I did not even dare to try to open some sites (The Mercury in particular) unless I had a cake to bake or an opera to write while I waited.

Further, Karen, the in-house bargain-hunter, finally figured out that getting Xfinity for cable, phone AND Internet would actually save us money.

Needless to say, my 13-year-old was overjoyed that the Xbox-360 he purchased with his own money could finally be connected to the Internet so he could join his friends’ zombie-slaying adventures.

But while the phone works fine, and the lap top gets a burly signal from the wireless router, the Xbox, which sees and attaches to our cozy little home network, refuses to get on the Internet.

So when I tell you we spent HOURS trying to solve this problem, please believe me when I tell you it was more than 10, resulting in what my son would call “an epic fail” – this despite an heroic effort (and by “heroic” I mean an unbelievably patient and logical effort) by our friend Matthew who lent his considerable expertise to the enterprise.

What was that button you pushed?!
(In case you haven't guessed, this is the part where you are to imagine repeated "smacking" of my head by technology as we explored DNS address differences, WPA, MASKS and, I'm pretty sure, old USSR launch codes.)

From a consumer point of view, this is obviously a problem because we are supposed to be able to use the system this way and we are paying for the ability to do so.

But since my skills as a technologist rarely rise above plugging in the wires to the right place; and since our consumer culture's lure is tepid to the guy who has to pay for it, in comparison to a 13-year-old who doesn't, our zeal for the necessity for this hook-up sent my mind in a different direction – one which asked why we considered it so goddamned important.

As luck, serendipity or the harmonic convergence would have it, discussions and examples of the technological advances which have marked my lifetime to date abounded last weekend.

On WHYY, Radiolab was talking about “Cleverbot,”(click here to hear the podcast), a program designed to learn to talk to us by, well talking to us.

(My son tells me he talks to Cleverbot "all the time" at school because it is not blocked by the school district's filters.)

But the examination spawned a conversation on the program about whether this kind of interchange represents "thinking," a thought which one is tempted to discard as absurd until you hear the part about the computer "therapist."

Then there was the next segment about "Furbies."
A seemingly aloof Furbie being interviewed by Tim Howard.

Do you remember them? Essentially they were furry heads with emotive ears that make cooing sounds and ultimately learn to talk (from us?!?).

The programmer, a former mime and actor, used what he had learned about non-verbal communication to have the furry little bastards evoke an emotional response from us, despite the fact that we know logically they are machines and not alive ... at least as we currently define "alive."

One contributor found that when she held her Furbie upside down, it told her it was scared, which, again, evoked an emotional response and she found she could not stand to keep it there as it became increasingly upset.

Ken was not part of the Radiolab experiment
The Radiolab folks conducted a diabolical experiment in which 9-year-old girls were asked to hold a live gerbil upside down (they lasted about 10 seconds); a Barbie (they lasted until their arms gave out) and a Furbie (they lasted not much longer than the gerbil).

The resulting conclusion -- that those old enough to articulate their reactions but not so old as to use society's conventions to rationalize them away are swayed to an emotional reaction by mere mechanical manipulation -- is fairly conclusive as these things go ... and a little scary.

It's not exactly "The Matrix," but in many ways, it's not that far off either.

Meet Bina 48, the existential robot
Then they aired the portion of the program about journalist Jon Ronson who was assigned to interview a robot named Bina 48 who was capable, to some extent, of fairly complex interaction, including a story about her family and her black sheep of a brother.

Her responses were awkward, but her creator insisted he was already making a new and improved model.

As a reader of science fiction I, of course, read Isaac Asimov's "I Robot," which always seemed less of a story with a plot to me as a warning that if we're going to invent things like this, we should give some thought to making sure some basic protections are in place.

For the uninitiated, the key feature of Asimov's story, given a new twist in the Will Smith blockbuster, is the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

So while I'm pretty sure that Xbox or Xfinity or Comcast were not in danger of violating any of the three laws, I was pretty sure by the end of last weekend that I might injure one or all of them.

But all joking aside, this is hardly the point.

My job has made me participate in the technological revolution in ways I probably would never have embraced left to my own devices (pun intended).

And while I have experienced many advantages, more efficient and effective reporting; a wider audience for my work; re-connections with friends from high school; and I would not trade the nearly daily contact with my father for all the Luddites in Manchester -- I'm still not comfortable with it all. 
Perhaps I never will be.

A friend, getting a guided tour of social media sites almost as new to me as to him, was astounded at what information people will share.

"The Architect," right, who built "The Matrix" that holds humanity
captive in a world that exists in their mind, explains to "Neo," left,
that the idea that he is a "savior" is just another way to control those
who can't accept the world he has created for them in The Matrix.
And I thought about another friend I have been watching who is posting photos of his entire life on Facebook's "Timeline" and thought to myself: "Why would anyone do that, show the world (or at least a larger portion than was previously possible) so much about your private life?"

It's a rhetorical question of course.

People have always been willing to share, provided they feel they're in control of the sharing.

And perhaps that's the real illusion social media gives us with the flashy screens and vague promises about "never sharing your private information."

But I wonder if that "control" is another illusion.

Remember, the prophecy of "The One" in "The Matrix" all turned out to be just another method of control.

Perhaps we're living there already.

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