Posts Tagged ‘technology’

The App Generation

September 17, 2015

imagesMaybe you’ve noticed a lot of folks fixated on their phones. Recently I saw some college kids at a bus stop, three fiddling with phones, the fourth not. “Hey Dude,” I said to myself, “where’s your phone?” As if on cue, he pulled it out and looked at it. Then I saw a kid riding a bike, with one hand holding a phone raised to his eyes!

The App Generation, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, explores how this technology is changing us. The focus is on young, mainly middle class Americans. “Youth is going to the dogs” has been a constant refrain in every generation, literally since ancient times, and certainly many people (older ones, of course) see something deeply amiss with how pervasive smartphone technology has become.

images-1The authors’ verdict is mixed. They focus on three “i’s” – identity, intimacy, and imagination, and how they’re affected by apps. For troglodytes, “app” is short for “application,” a computer program, that can be installed on a smartphone, such as a game, navigational aid, communication thing, etc. That “etc” is very broad and today there are apps for just about everything in life. Uber is an app for getting a car ride. Tinder is an app for getting a hook-up. (A “hook-up” is what used to be called a “date,” but minus formalities.)

Unknown-1Hence the concern that we’re becoming creatures of our apps. But the authors see this cutting two ways – whether apps are enabling (good) or create dependency (bad). It’s the difference between utilizing apps to enhance your experience of life, providing more and better options and ways of achieving objectives – or, on the other hand, having your life governed by the apps, so you become a virtual clone of all your fellow app slaves.images-3

“Imagination” refers to creativity, which can certainly be aided by apps, giving users more artistic outlets and avenues for self-expression. But the other side of the coin is doing things the way the app guides you, not breaking out of that box. This can indeed be a negative for those at the most talented end of the bell-shaped curve of creativity. But for the mass in the middle, I think the enabling aspect must far outweigh the dependency aspect, allowing people to be creative who just didn’t have the opportunity before.

“Identity” concerns one’s life project of building a persona. This requires some introspection. Through the ages, technological advancement’s main thrust has been to liberate us from drudgery, giving us not only material goods, but more freedom to think about the big questions. Apps can do this too, making much of life a lot easier. (Smartphone teens hardly know the concept of being lost.) But they can also swallow up life, becoming life. The book quotes one teenager: “On Facebook, people are more concerned with making it look like they’re living rather than actually living.”

Unknown-4“Intimacy” concerns human relationships. A common complaint is that people get together for dinner, say, but spend the whole time with eyes glued to phones. And that we’re actually losing our facility for face-to-face interaction. Yet in the smartphone era, it certainly seems there’s a lot more human connectedness going on. I’ve wondered what all these people, always on their phones, actually have to say to each other. But of course that’s not the point. The connectedness itself is the point, as though society is becoming like a giant ant colony of shared consciousness. However, as the book’s authors ruminate, keeping in touch is not the same as really relating to another person. Many people actually seem to maintain their webs of smartphone connections in a narcissistic way – constantly tapping each other on the shoulder, as it were, as a way to verify that “I really exist, I matter.”

Here again, the technology can work as a facilitator, or actually an impediment, depending on how it’s used, and the kind of person using it. And of course, the kind of person you are can be shaped by such pervasive technology.

Unknown-5Many modern parents are more connected to their children than I am; smartphones certainly enable helicopter parenting. The book notes that some kids are sent to “no devices” summer camps with two phones, one to turn in and the other to hide, to keep in touch. And a lot of parents try too hard to shield their children from any difficulties, disappointments, or unhappiness, making them less prepared for life’s vicissitudes. The authors worry that youngsters are becoming too risk averse, less open to experience and serendipity – preferring to remain within an app cocoon, going through life as though on a predetermined railroad track with no deviations tolerated.

But query whether all these sociological phenomena are down to just one technology. Human society has been changing ever more rapidly as all forms of technology have flourished, altering beyond recognition the conditions of our existence.

Unknown-3It can be hard to balance all the considerations and judge whether life is becoming better or worse, or just different. But every technological advancement through the ages has been met with critics deploring it. Writing was condemned by Socrates in fear that people’s memory capability would atrophy from disuse; similarly some pundit recently fretted GPS will ruin our directional sense. Indeed, many people today see the whole human enterprise as deplorable, and if we destroy ourselves, we’ll deserve it. I disagree. That human enterprise has always been about overcoming an impersonal, cruel nature, to make our lives better, and we’ve succeeded spectacularly.

Unknown-2In the end, people themselves must judge, for themselves, whether something enhances their lives. (I hate all politics premised on someone else knowing better.) And the veritable tsunami force with which not just youngsters, but people of all ages, everywhere, have embraced smartphone/app technology, suggests you have to be pretty brave to tell them all it’s bad.

UnknownI say this from the objective standpoint of a non-convert. I don’t even own a smartphone. This blog post was written with a quill pen, on parchment, and uploaded by carrier pigeon.



Has Progress Stalled?

January 3, 2015

UnknownOn December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers achieved a 12-second, 120-foot flight. Within about half a century, we were flying to Europe in eight hours. After a further half century, we’re doing it in . . . eight hours. Meantime, the Concorde, that could do it in three, was abandoned.

So has progress actually juddered to a halt? Michael Hanlon, writing recently in Aeon, says yes. He sees a “Golden Quarter” (GQ) from about 1945 to 1971 as the source of all the innovations defining the modern world, with nothing comparable since. imagesAirplanes are Exhibit A; only marginally improved since the ‘60s, with no quantum leap analogous to that between the Wright Flyer and the Boeing 707. The Jetsons’ flying car never materialized. The Moon hasn’t been visited in 42 years. Similarly, in medicine, Hanlon puts all the world-changing advancements behind us, with continuing longevity gains being merely attributable to building on those past breakthroughs. We still haven’t cured cancer. Even social progress, he says, was great in the GQ, with nothing like it since.

Why? Hanlon proposes various answers. One is . . . wait for it . . . rising inequality. Progressives are obsessed over this, trying to prove inequality causes all manner of ills. Hanlon attributes the GQ innovation to a world getting richer, but says concentrating wealth in few hands somehow stifles innovation and breeds “planned obsolescence” of products instead. Unknown-1That linkage seems obscure; and anyway, while inequality within countries may be rising, worldwide it’s a different story, because the poorer nations – notably India and China, both huge – are experiencing faster economic growth than the advanced ones. Thus, far more people have far more income and wealth today.

More persuasive is Hanlon’s saying we’ve become less trusting of science and more risk-averse. An earlier generation was in love with technological and medical improvements, remembering how bad things were before. Today we forget, and even romanticize “the good old days.” Unknown-2There’s a belief that science and technology are false gods leading us astray, and a frightened focus on risks rather than rewards; thus a “precautionary principle” that rejects anything not proven riskless, an impossible standard. This gives us the misguided anti-immunization movement, opposition to fracking, and to Genetic Modification that could entail huge benefits for billions. Hanlon thinks a manned Moon mission would be considered too dangerous today.*

He also cites a 2011 essay, The Great Stagnation, by economist Tyler Cowen, suggesting that the U.S. in particular has reached a technological plateau. images-2Cowen thought past advances were grabbing “low hanging fruit,” and further progress is simply much harder. But Hanlon actually rejects that idea as “fanciful,” saying that historically, “it has often seemed that a plateau has been reached, only for a new discovery to shatter old paradigms completely.” He cites Kelvin in 1900 declaring physics essentially done – just before Einstein came along. (Perhaps an odd point to make in an article contending progress has stalled.)

I’m no physicist, but I do think we’ve now reached a point where nothing could “shatter old paradigms completely.” images-1The “low hanging fruit” metaphor also seems applicable to Hanlon’s prime exhibit, air travel. Not that jet planes aren’t a technological miracle – but, for moving lots of people long distances, this may be about the best that’s practicable, and any greater speed would entail a host of problems. We gave up on the Concorde for good reasons. And never got flying cars because that’s actually not a very good idea either.**

This perspective prompts a broader response to Hanlon – a la “what more do you want?” We can travel to Europe in eight hours! Moreover, as Hanlon actually acknowledges, that’s become affordable to ordinary people. Unknown-3(Which happened after the GQ.) Similarly, social progress has been enormous – civil rights, women’s liberation, etc. – also mostly subsequent to the GQ – and is still unfolding for gay rights. Violence (as Steven Pinker has persuasively shown), of all sorts, continues to decline. We may not be perfect yet, but surely there’s a lot less work still to do.

But none of this means progress, in all its manifestations, has fizzled out, and Hanlon has to twist things hard to make it seem so. While early on he sneers that progress today “is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements to information technology,” later he allows that “the modern internet is a wonder, more impressive in many ways than Apollo.” The Internet too postdated the GQ.

images-1Hanlon is ultimately a victim of a myopia he himself describes. It is indeed easy to take for granted and belittle modern amenities, forgetting what went before. It’s what Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, called the adaptation effect – one adapts to the life one has now, which does seem banal, underappreciated as merely what one now expects. Day-to-day, or even year-to-year, progress may not seem evident. But if you compare today with 1971 – the end of Hanlon’s Golden Quarter – the difference is huge on a host of fronts.

And while “what more do you want?” may be a fair perspective on modernity, there are still big things we can yet aim for. We won’t blow ourselves up, or be done in by climate change. For all the fretting over that and rising inequality, I actually foresee steady economic advancement and a global mass affluence that will truly constitute a quantum change in the human condition. Similarly transformative will be further progress on health. Death by old age is a solvable medical problem.

Finally, all this improvement will be propelled by advancing artificial intelligence. That looms as a stupendous game-changer – Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” when life becomes altogether different. images-3Stephen Hawking actually worries this threatens humanity (and I recently reviewed a movie with that view). I’m more optimistic, and foresee an eventual convergence between Humanity 1.0, of the flesh, and a cybernetic version 2.0.

I discussed this in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? And if anyone in that future remembers the Hanlon article, it’ll quaintly sound like Kelvin in 1900.

* He aptly notes that the thalidomide episode was awful, but such occasional screw-ups are the inevitable costs of trying out new things, the benefits of which exceed such downsides. That perspective is being lost, an attitudinal change to which Thalidomide contributed.

** But self-driving cars are coming.

Transcendence – Another AI Movie

October 11, 2014

images-1Since I believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) looms hugely in our future – I had to see Transcendence, the latest AI movie. It’s a lot darker than the last one, Her. (See my review.)

Will (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are husband-and-wife AI scientists, who have created PINN, a computer-based intelligence with self-awareness (maybe). Max is another, who has succeeded in uploading a monkey’s mind to a computer (maybe). imagesRIFT is a Luddite terrorist group fearing AI will cause humanity’s demise (though exactly how was never clear to me).

RIFT shoots Will with a radioactive bullet; he has a month to live. So, they meld his and Evelyn’s work with Max’s, to upload Will’s mind to PINN before his body conks out. This is RIFT’s nightmare; they manage to destroy the PINN computer, but too late to stop Will from escaping out into the Internet – where he is now, well, everywhere. With access to all the information and data in the world.

This is the “Singularity” foreseen by Ray Kurzweil (and in my own famous Humanist magazine article), when AI vastly outstrips human intelligence, sending technological advancement into overdrive. images-2Will and Evelyn mastermind a giant underground facility hosting banks of quantum computers, and we get a foretaste of the medical and environmental miracles that the duo had always envisioned as their end goal. Will creates a praetorian guard of seemingly unkillable human-AI “hybrids.”

But RIFT sees all this as curtains for Humanity 1.0 – and ultimately manages to convince Max, the Morgan Freeman wise man scientist character, and finally Evelyn herself. Even the government is secretly on their side!

Nearing the end there is a lot of gunplay and blowing up stuff. Not exactly futuristic – the weaponry was vintage WWII. images-3And frankly, I had a hard time following it. Now, I think I’m no dummy; I’ve even written about the film’s exact premise; and in fact, at one point I turned to my wife and said, carbon nanotubes.” The film never used that phrase, but I inferred that explained what we were seeing (having heard a lecture by Eric Drexler, the father of nanotech; as a speaker, he was a dud). Anyway, even with all this background, I still couldn’t quite follow the confusing, opaque action, nor make sense of the denouement. And if I couldn’t, how could the average Joe Schmoe? This isn’t unique. Why does Hollywood make films this way?

In the end, of course, the “good guys” (who turn out to be the Luddite terrorists!) win. If you call it winning – it requires destroying the whole Internet – which in turn wrecks civilization as we know it, putting us halfway back to the Stone Age. But happily, humanity and the planet are saved. I guess. (Maybe.)

images-6At one point in Transcendence, a character laments that every new technology always inspires irrational fears. Yet the film’s overall message, like many others (Avatar is a prime example), disgracefully sows exactly that kind of fear and distrust of scientific advances. And the concern isn’t abstract – in the real-world nanotechnology and AI already do inspire RIFT-like fear-mongering.

Humanity’s greatest effort is to overcome our limitations, and the fears that hold us back. That’s real transcendence.

Engineering marvels

September 27, 2014

UnknownA modern 777 jetliner is an absolute marvel of engineering. Yet (unlike on smaller planes) the overhead bins are almost, but not quite, deep enough for standard carry-ons to go in wheels-first. And almost, but not quite, wide enough to fit three lengthwise. So you can only get two in a bin. A tiny modification to their design could have increased the bins’ capacity by 50%.

I used to have a fax machine which required fax paper rolls, which was fine; the rolls were cheap, lasted almost forever, and were a snap to change. Finally it broke and I had to replace it, and found that ones like that are no longer made. Now they’re all “plain paper” fax machines. 'Are you sure that hitting it with a baseball bat will work?'Which sounds great – except that they require these ridiculously bulky cartridges containing rolls of what looks like carbon paper in them, that are quite costly, don’t last very long, and are a royal pain-in-the-butt to change, if you can even manage to figure out how to do it correctly. Moreover, after laying in a supply of these godawful cartridges, I thought to get hold of a back-up fax machine that appeared to take the same ones, only to find that in fact, the cartridge for the second machine is actually a tiny bit different and not interchangeable.

Technological progress – you gotta love it. God bless our engineering geniuses.

(Advt) Coming Soon: The Oople iMplant™

September 21, 2014

Get ready for . . .

images-1No more fiddling with buttons or touchscreens.

No more recharging hassles.

No more misplacing it, having it stolen, or dropping it in the bathtub.

No more confusing features to figure out.

imagesNo more pushback from dweebs annoyed by your chatter.

No more dorky glasses on your face.

The future is now.

You’ll never look back.

You may never look anywhere else.

Introducing . . . The Oople iMplant™.

images-2The Oople iMplant™ will be installed directly into your brain. (Our bioengineers have located there a space for it, that you weren’t really using anyway.) Quick, painless, and conveniently available at any Ooplestore.

Here’s how it works: by reading your mind. Yes. After all, it’s right in there, in fact it’s part of your mind. Ever wonder how you know what you’re thinking? Philosophers have puzzled over this for eons. But it doesn’t matter, because whatever way you know what you’re thinking, Oople iMplant™ will know it too. However – and here’s the killer – unlike your old analog brain, confined inside your skull – Oople iMplant™ will be wirelessly connectedto everything!

So, say you need a recipe for ratatouille. Simply think that thought, and Oople iMplant™ will search the web, get an answer, and download it right into your mind. It’s just that easy!

UnknownAnd if you want to phone your girlfriend – merely think it – and Oople iMplant™ will connect you. What’s more, the conversation will be totally private, because it will take place inside your brain. 

If that sounds a lot like telepathy . . . well, welcome to Oople iMplant™!

Unknown-1Can it teleport you too? No.

But we’re working on that.

Oople: “Making tomorrow today.”