Saturday, March 1, 2008

Our relationship with our technology: An unequal partnership

Philip Dick wrote about it. William Gibson centred much of his fiction on it. What is our relationship with our technology? People like to think they are the Masters or Mistresses and that their machines do their bidding but I think it is the other way round. I perceive this partnership as essentially an unequal one, with the balance of power favouring the technology.

It can be as simple an interaction as an attempt to communicate with a bank or the people who deliver bottled water. 'Voice-recognition' or 'voice-activated' software, often touted as the ultimate advance with respect to communication is a nightmare.

I recently overheard a conversation between a girl and her cellphone. I cannot recall the exchange verbatim but it went something like this:
Cellphone: 'What listing?'
Girl: 'Harriet'.
Cellphone: 'You want to call Home?'
Girl: No. 'Harriet'.
Cellphone: 'You want to call Rick?'
Girl (speaking louder and more distinctly): No, Harriet.

And so on and so forth, the girl becoming rather bitter in her seemingly circular argument with her own servant machine!

I have had the same conversation dozens of times with merchants who have the same sort of software.

They cannot get it right. I eliminate my 'accent', attempt to flatten my delivery and the machine still does not comprehend.

Ultimately, there is only ONE solution in every instance: to simply repeat, again and again, the words, 'Customer Service' until the machine untangles its translation and sends you to a REAL human being.

I cannot imagine what horrors will be in store for users who eliminate their keyboards on their computers in order to use 'voice-activated' software. Give me a keyboard any day, although a keyboard on a computer is subject to the same glitches and quirks as any technological item.

For example, on my laptop, when I am typing, very often the machine inexplicably will jump to a previous paragraph and insert my text there. Worse than that is the programming that causes the machine to highlight a paragraph or portion of a paragraph quite without my permission and then DELETE it! Fortunately, I discovered that 'Undo' SOMETIMES if not always can be applied here to restore the cut text.

When I contacted the makers of the laptop, I was told that this is unavoidable, caused somehow by the close proximity of ALL the keys and the sensitivity of the keyboard. I attempted to change the sensitivity to make the keyboard as insensitive as the worst lout and cad, but in vain... Yes, I type very quickly, but I never had this trouble in pre-computer days.

My laptop turns itself on and off without my permission, installs programmes without my permission, all under the guise of 'protecting' me from harm and danger. I try to limit its autonomy but one reaches points constantly where the machine refuses to act, saying that updates are required...

One of AOL's 'updates' in the past year or so added nasty advertisements to their site AND forced me to include them in my emails. Under the guise of 'improving' performance or 'security', it appears to me that most of these 'updates' and changes are motivated by greed, thinly disguised as a concern for the user's welfare. AOL became a 'free service' after all the advertising was added. I personally would have preferred to pay a minimal fee to keep my life free from these intruders.

There are few programmes that do not require 'updates', sometimes shutting down the computer at an inopportune moment. Yesterday, I was working on a document and had been writing for almost two hours. I had to step away from the laptop for a moment. When I returned, it was 'recovering from an unexpected shutdown'. All my work was LOST.

This caused me to think about the relationship we have with these machines and how much of our time is spent waiting for them to respond or installing 'updates' and 'improvements' that seldom improve anything for the machine's human user. Furthermore, how many of us really know what our machines are DOING???

It is not only hackers who assume control of our computers. There are countless outside influences that dictate the actions of our machines at any given moment. You may be doing NOTHING at all when the machine begins to work furiously at some hidden task... Go into the Task Manager menu and you may or may not understand what application is being used or what programme is involved...

It is not computers alone that bedevil our lives. Telephones are extremely sophisticated, including all sorts of programming that prevent any simple interaction. You have to spend at least half an hour with ANY new machine to programme it or make it ready to function on YOUR behalf.

There is a part of me that loves technology. It is akin to magic, really. On the other hand, any adept in magic knows that allowing the jinn to escape from the bottle, or conjuring a demon or spirit is dangerous... Control and vigilance are required on a constant basis. Otherwise, the power will take matters into its own hands to perform actions that are part of its own hidden agenda... It is no different, I would say, with technological 'powers'.

N.B. Photograph of what may be the most utterly cool cellphone in the world... I don't know, never having seen it 'in the flesh' as it were... By 'servants' like this are we seduced and yet... and yet... For all the little wonders it promises to deliver, how much time would be spent serving IT?

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