Chapter 18. The Ideal of Ubiquitous Technology
I sometimes wonder whether the folks at the MIT Media Lab are pulling our legs.
It seems that a lot of energy at the prestigious lab (which claims to be "inventing the future") has gone into the redesign of the American kitchen. For example, one project involved training a glass counter top
to assemble the ingredients for making fudge by reading electronic tags on jars of mini-marshmallows and chocolate chips, then coordinating their quantities with a recipe on a computer and directing a microwave oven to cook it.
Dr. Andrew Lippman, associate director of the Media Lab, said that "my dream tablecloth would actually move the things on the table. You throw the silver down on it, and it sets the table."
One waits in vain for the punch line. These people actually seem to be serious. And the millions of dollars they consume look all too much like real money. Then there are the corporate sponsors, falling all over themselves to throw yet more money at these projects.
Nowadays this kind of adolescent silliness is commonly given the halo of a rationale that has become respected dogma. After all, don't many inventions find unexpected uses in fields far removed from their first application, and doesn't a spirit of play often give rise to productive insight?
Certainly. But somehow it doesn't all add up.
In the first place, the likelihood of serendipitous benefits is not a convincing justification for trivializing the immediate application of millions of research dollars. No one would argue that non-trivial research is less likely to produce valuable off-shoots than trivial research, so why start with triviality?
In the second place, the Media Lab researchers voice their comic lines with a strange seriousness and fervor, devoid of the detachment underlying a true spirit of play. Michael Hawley, an associate professor of media technology at MIT, laments that the kitchen is
where you have the most complex human interactions and the most convoluted schedule management and probably the least use of new technologies to help you manage it all.
And of this degrading backwardness Lippman adds:
Right now, your toaster doesn't talk to your television set, and your refrigerator doesn't talk to your stove, and none of them talk to the store and tell you to get milk on your way home. It's an obvious place screaming out for connectivity.
Those sponsors must love it. Where else but in an academic computing laboratory could they possibly find adult human beings seriously willing to propose such laughable things in order to start creating an artificial need where none was recognized before? By slow degrees the laughable becomes conventional.
Which explains why those corporate sponsors don't appear to be just waiting around for the occasional, serendipitous "hit." Clearly, they see the entire trivial exercise as itself somehow integral to their own success. I don't doubt their judgment in this at all.
Thirdly, there are signs of a pathological flight from reality in all this. Hawley tells us that
in time, kitchens and bathrooms will monitor the food we eat so closely that health care will disappear. We will move from a world in which the doctor gets a pinprick of data every blue moon to the world in which the body is online.
"Health care will disappear." If his words are meant to be taken even half seriously, this is a man with severely impaired judgment and with the most tenuous connection to reality. One wonders how many of these kitchen technicians have ever done some serious gardening, and how many of them can even grasp the possibility that preparing food might be an important and satisfying form of work at least as satisfying as interacting with the digital equipment they would inflict on the rest of us (and, for that matter, a lot healthier).
No, the kind of fluff the Media Lab all too often advertises is not really comic. Looked at in its social context, it is sick and obscene. It is sick because of the amount of money spent on superficialities; it is sick because of the way corporate sponsors have been able to buy themselves an "academic" facility at a major educational institution to act as their "Consumer Preparation Department"; and it is sick because a straight-faced press corps slavishly reports these "inventions of the future" without ever administering the derisive smile so much of this stuff begs for.
The above quotes, by the way, come from the New York Times (Hamilton 1999). The author of the article does at least quietly give notice that Hawley is "a bachelor who rarely uses his kitchen." Hardly surprising. The man's passion has a lot more to do with computing for its own sake than with entering into the meaning and significance of the food preparer's task.