We live in an ironic age where people and technology are so intertwined that I sometimes wonder if we really made the right decision to switch our eyes from all the excited and vast unknown around us to a black screen just a couple inches big. I was born in 1997, so I personally witnessed and lived through the divide. Growing up, I remembered all my best friends’ phone numbers so I could call them. A few months ago I was at a hospital filling out my emergency contacts and I was blanking on everyone’s cell — my mom, my dad, my best friends in the city, the guy that I’ve seen a couple times (not that I was planning to put him). I know that at a surface level it just shows that I have better things to remember, like my work stuff, events I’m going to, when does restaurant week in NYC start and end…?
Earlier this week I attended a wonderful talk hosted by betaworks exactly on this topic featuring Amber Case, a research fellow at the Institute For The Future and author of Calm Technology,. During the event we discussed the fundamental shift in the relationships between humanity and technology which inspired me to re-examine my interactions with technology every day. So here we go — a day in the life of Chialin: in the morning I wake up to SleepCycle, an app that tracks my movements and noises through my phone’s microphone when it wakes me up exactly at the end of a 90min sleep cycle which is scientifically proven to give me to better head start to the day. I then ask Siri to play some music while I get ready, and repeatedly question Siri “what time is it” and “what’s the weather like” as I bury myself in makeups and piles of clothes. My mirror scans my face and tells me which areas of my face need more hydration while adjusting the lighting for the weather so I can choose the best lip color for a sunny crispy winter day. I need to go to an event before I head into work, and my calendar is already synced with my map so it sends me an alarm reminding me to head out along with the best route options. On my back to work after the event I stop by a coffee shop and the barista mentions I can put in my phone number to collect points. I like the coffee enough to try it, but surprisingly gets an alert that I already have 500 points — apparently Stripes is taking a tab of all the merchants I’ve shopped with and probably knows every single order I’ve made. It’s now 1030AM, less than 3 hours into my day, and I already feel like a giant baby needing the internet and my phone to take care of me. Here’s a philosophical question: am I shaping the technology in my life by telling them what I want to do, or are they shaping me by feeding me information and options they come up with?
It’s a big topic to digest, and there’s lots to think about. On one hand, we want to tame the technology. We make them smart and let them talk to each other so they can learn and improve and eventually serve us better. Who doesn’t like a humidifier that gives you exactly 65% humidity because it can read your Zocdoc appointment history and you just went to a doctor for cold yesterday. We feel so in control when technology does things we create and design them for, and even more so when they take care of things before we even ask. However, to gain that power and control, we also have to voluntarily give up our most intimate “things” — the words we murmur in our sleep, the private texts we send to our close friends, the doctors we’ve seen… Who is in control of who now? The choice between privacy and convenience is a tug of war we’re having constantly, and sometimes it scares me that kids and teenagers who haven’t had the time or chance to read the entire manual are involved in this game too.
I don’t think there’s a possibility to reverse the dynamics now. It’s kind of like the Pandora’s box — the best we can do is to control it. For one, personal security becomes a priority. Similar to how we make firewalls and software that detect virus and breaches in old computers, we need virus detectors made for personal information that guards Siri, Alexa, Cortana and the rest of our virtual friends. Additionally, I believe it’s also necessary for designers to ask themselves how much power they’ve given their users to protect themselves in needed when creating products. I’m not a designer and I’ve never created things, and I would imagine it’s a hard process to navigate and find the balance between user protection and functionality. However, the thought itself is enough to plant a seed that has the potential to grow and fruit. I’m fine with Alexa eavesdropping when I talk to myself in the shower, but I’d like to have the option to block out certain words from her so she wouldn’t “remember”. And I’m completely fine with Google to know exactly where I will be at any given point of the day, but I’ll be happier I have a clear idea of who Google shares these information with. IoT is a trend that I’m passionate about and believe in, but I think as tech “invades” more of our life, the best way we can “save ourselves” is by reserving our options to shut it down and completely erase at any time we want — a power-off button that washes away all that ever exists and gives you back a clean slate. The truth is, and maybe I’m pessimistic, we can never tame technology. All we can do is to create more technology to control the existing ones.
And what does that make us? When I was a kid I went to a circus one time, and that was more than a decade ago so there were still tigers and bears and horses. One of the trick the ring leader played was to tempt the bear with an apple. A few tries later the bear got aggressive and was about to lose it, and that’s when the ringleader introduced the lion to the show to scare and tame the bear. The ringleader then rewards the lion by throwing it steaks. Most kids walk out of a circus thinking “wow the ringleader is so cool”. I’ve always feared for their lives because what if the lion and the bear become allies? They’re in much more similar positions and it’s not like the ringleader speaks either bear or lion languages.
Have we been the ringleader this whole time?