Different Roles of Technology

Tuesday, January 1, 1980

Technology as an Intermediator

There is a lot of potential for technology as an intermediator between human beings, for example, in remote diagnostics in medicine, in news and other essential processes of democracy, as well as in one's personal life. I remember I once asked my brother to turn on Skype and point the camera and microphone to his television so I could see a cricket match that was being played in India. Another time I asked him to leave the mic on so I could hear the sounds from my mom's house while I was wandering around in my apartment in the US—it was just like being together in the same room. And more importantly, we can see it in the incredible protests for democracy taking place in HongKong. The photos are mind boggling as they show the use of phones and umbrellas (!) to resist the police force.

The recently introduced Apple Watch has a mode where one can draw on the watch and another person will immediately see the drawing in real time. They showed how one could press a button on the watch and the other person would be able to see, feel and even hear one's heartbeat. Turns out, there are quite a few of these "couples" apps that allow two people who are in love to be able to be in close connection with each other via not just text but other modes as well.

Technology as a Dis-intermediator

The current technology environment is a manufactured landscape. All the data analytics, instead of just understanding our natural behavior, are being used to direct it. As a result, our behavior is no longer natural. I am shown ads based on what I write or read, I am shown new things to buy based on what I have bought before, I "follow" those who are like me, and I am told of places that are in vicinity of where I am. To some extent this is useful, utilitarian. But in terms of understanding the world, it is creating a bubble as I increasingly get to know only things, places and people like that I already know.

Richard Kearney writes about losing our touch because of ubiquitous technology:

We noted the rather obvious paradox: The ostensible immediacy of sexual contact was in fact mediated digitally. And it was also noted that what is often thought of as a “materialist” culture was arguably the most “immaterialist” culture imaginable — vicarious, by proxy, and often voyeuristic.

In war, hand-to-hand combat has been replaced by “targeted killing” via remote-controlled drones. If contemporary warfare renders us invulnerable to those who cannot touch us, can we make peace without a hand to shake?

Because to love or be loved truly is to be able to say, “I have been touched.”

Technology as a Disabler

In the terrifying story of the 2009 Air France crash and the role of The Human Factor affected by technology, William Langewiesche writes:

To put it briefly, automation has made it more and more unlikely that ordinary airline pilots will ever have to face a raw crisis in flight—but also more and more unlikely that they will be able to cope with such a crisis if one arises. Moreover, it is not clear that there is a way to resolve this paradox.

Wiener pointed out that the effect of automation is to reduce the cockpit workload when the workload is low and to increase it when the workload is high.

Sarter said, “Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system.”

Langewiesche goes on to write:

Once you put pilots on automation, their manual abilities degrade and their flight-path awareness is dulled: flying becomes a monitoring task, an abstraction on a screen, a mind-numbing wait for the next hotel. Nadine Sarter said that the process is known as de-skilling.

It seems that we are locked into a spiral in which poor human performance begets automation, which worsens human performance, which begets increasing automation.

This is addressed wonderfully in the 1975 paper by Jones, Holling and Peterman titled Safe Fail vs Fail Safe Catastrophes.

There is also the famous article by Nick Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid?. The answer is not necessarily "yes," but there is no doubt tech is changing our behavior, even our physicality not quite unlike birds are changing their wings in response to changing wind patterns because of climate change. Carr writes:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

And, of course, tech is terrible at dealing with un-programmed (unexpected) events. See Why Big Data Missed the Early Warning Signs of Data by Kaleev Leetaru. Turns out, the tech was not programmed to deal with French language!

The problem is that all of this media coverage was in French -- and was not among the French material that GDELT was able to translate those days.

There is a singular preoccupation in government today with forecasting the future. Yet, we must be careful that among investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in forecasting systems that have yet to produce useful results, we don't miss the early warning signs of emerging pandemics that are quite literally broadcast for us on national television. Instead of trying to "beat" the international news through massive investments in computer models, we should instead be focusing on listening better.

Technology as an Enabler

Friendships are hard because they are demanding. While the closest of friendships may eventually become less demanding, because of orthogonal reasons, definitely in the formative stages they require constant care and nurturing much like a new plant does. Once the plant grows up and becomes strong, it may be able to flourish without constant care, but that stage comes much later. The demand on one's time and energies is a direct function of the importance of the friendship. The more we want something, the more care we have to provide it. Without this input, friendships enter into a maintenance mode, and recurring attention starts becoming a chore. It may be necessary, at times, to consciously focus on the positive aspects of the relationship, an act that can be made possible via both memories of good times in the past as well as aspiration for good times in the future.

Technology can be an enabler in this. Because I have lived away from my family for a very long time now I've always depended on technology in some form of the other connect to people that I care for. I guess this is nothing new for people have always depended upon some kind of technology to be in touch with their loved ones, friends, colleagues. But it is amazing how in my own lifetime I've gone from writing and sending letters that would take a week to go across the world to now instant connection via Skype text email etc.

When I meet someone who inspires me to write, to learn a language, to think, that is a person worth holding on to with all my energy. I am very happy to return to long form of writing. Yes, it takes a lot of work, and requires extended periods of concentration to form coherent thoughts that read well. But it is worth it. We exist to express ourselves, and anyone (or anything) who makes us want to express more is worth everything. And, once I have written it, I can send it instantly with a click of a button. So, here's to you who inspires me to write, for the gift of words is the best gift one can give or get.