18.1. Digital Servants Everywhere

The idea at work in all this has seized the engineer's imagination with all the force of a logical necessity. In fact, you could almost say that the idea is the idea of logical necessity the necessity of embedding little bits of silicon logic in everything around us. What was once the feverish dream of spooks and spies to plant a "bug" in every object has been enlarged and re-shaped into the millennial dream of ubiquitous computing. In this new dream, of course, the idea of a bug in every software-laden object carries its own rather unpleasant overtones. But unpleasant overtones are not what the promoters of ubiquitous computing have in mind. On its web site, the Media Lab claims to pursue "a future where the bits of the digital realm interact seamlessly with the atoms of our physical world, and where our machines not only respond to our commands, but also understand our emotions a future where digital innovation becomes the domain of all."

I suppose Bill Gates' networked house is the reigning emblem of ubiquitous computing. When the door knows who is entering the room and communicates this information to the multimedia system, the background music and the images on the walls can be adjusted to suit the visitor's tastes. When the car and garage talk to each other, the garage door can open automatically whenever the car approaches.

Once your mind gets to playing with such scenarios and there are plenty of people of good will in academic and industrial organizations who are playing very seriously with them the unlimited possibilities crowd in upon you, spawning visions of a future where all things stand ready to serve our omnipotence. Refrigerators that tell the grocery shopper what is in short supply, shopping carts that communicate with products on the shelves, toilets that assay their clients' health, clothes that network us, kitchen shelves that make omelets, smart cards that record all our medical data, cars that know where they're going clearly we can proceed down this road as far and fast as we wish.

And why shouldn't we move quickly? Why shouldn't we welcome innovation and technical progress without hesitation? I have done enough computer programming to recognize the inwardly compelling force of the knowledge that I can give myself crisp new capabilities. It is hard to prefer not having a particular capability, whatever it might be, over having it.

Moreover, I'm convinced that to say we should not have technical capability X is a dead-end argument. It's the kind of argument that makes the proponents of ubiquitous computing conclude, with some justification, that you are simply against progress. You can only finally assess a tool in its context of use, so that to pronounce the tool intrinsically undesirable would require an assessment of every currently possible or conceivable context. You just can't do it and if you try, you underestimate the fertile, unpredictable winds of human creativity.

But this cuts both ways. You also cannot pronounce a tool desirable (or worth the investment of substantial resources) apart from a context of desirability. Things are desirable only insofar as a matrix of needs, capacities, yearnings, practical constraints, and wise judgment confirms them.

The healthy way to proceed would be to concern ourselves with this or that activity in its fullest context and then, in the midst of the activity, ask ourselves how its meaning might be deepened, its purpose more satisfyingly fulfilled. Only in that meditation can we begin to sense which technologies might be introduced in appropriate ways and which would be harmful. If you want to know how to make food preparation in the kitchen a more satisfying experience, then find the most deeply committed gardeners and cooks you can and apprentice yourself to them.

But it's difficult to overestimate the appeal of purely technical challenges or the hard work required to integrate a technical achievement into a fully human context. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the way we like to speak of "solutions."

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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