Thesis 33


Thesis 33

The appeal of everyware is at some level universal.

Be honest now: Who among us has not wished, from time to time, for some powerful sympathetic agency to intervene in our lives, to fix our mistakes and rescue us from the consequences of our lapses in judgment?

This is one desire I sense, beneath all the various projects devoted to ubiquitous surveillance or memory augmentation or encalming. What are they if not dreams of welcome and safety, of some cushion against the buffeting of our times? What are they if not a promise of some awareness in the world other than our own, infused into everything around us, capable of autonomous action and dedicated to our well-being?

In a sense this is only a return to a much older tradition. For most of our sojourn on this planet, human beings have understood the physical world as a place intensely invested with consciousness and agency; the idea that the world is alive, that the objects therein are sentient and can be transacted with, is old and deep and so common to all the cultures of humanity that it may as well be called universal.

As Freud described it, "the world was full of spirits...and all the objects in the external world were their dwelling-place, or perhaps identical with them." It is only comparatively recently that most people have believed otherwiseindeed, most of the humans who ever walked the planet would have found it utter folly to conceive of the natural world as mainstream Western culture did until very recently: a passive, inert, purely material stage, on which the only meaningful actors are human ones.

If we have always acted as though the things around us are alive, then the will to make it so in fact (or at least make it seem so) at the moment the technical wherewithal became available is understandable. That things like gestural and voice-recognition interfaces are so fervently pursued despite the many difficulties involved in perfecting them might tell us something about the deep roots of their appeal, if we're willing to listen.

Their long pedigree in science fiction merely extends the earlier tradition; folklore is replete with caves that open at a spoken command, swords that can be claimed only by a single individual, mirrors that answer with killing honesty when asked to name the fairest maiden in the land, and so on. Why, then, should anyone be surprised when we try to restage these tales, this time with our technology in the central role? Everyware is simply speaking to something that has lain dormant within us for much of modernity and played an overt, daily role in our lives for a very long time before that.

This is perhaps the most poignant factor driving the development of everyware, but as we've seen, it is far from the only one. From the crassest of motives to the noblest, there are so many powerful forces converging on the same set of technical solutions that their eventual realization truly does seem inevitable, no matter how we may quail at the determinism implied.

We will get to make meaningful choices about the precise shape of their appearance in the world, howeverbut only if we are smarter and more prudent than we have been about previous technologies. The next chapter will cover some of the issues we will need to keep foremost in mind if we want to make these crucial decisions wisely.