1. Human vs Machine
How powerful is your computer? There is a strong chance your answer to this question will be along the lines of: I have an Apple Macbook with the new M2 chip and an 8-core CPU or I have a PC with an Intel 12-core Core i7-1260P. But that isn’t what I am asking. The answer I am seeking is far more interesting, and possibly dangerous.
We cannot escape the ubiquity of the digital age. In every house, school, business there is no doubt at least one computer, not to mention the fact that we now have one in our hands most of day that has the usurped its original usage, the telephonic means of communication, I’m of course referring to the smartphone. Everything in our lives has been or is being digitised from banking, dating, media, friendships, music, the list is endless, just look at the apps on your phone to witness the digital transformation of most aspects of your life.
Last night I sat at my desk where I have a laptop connected to another screen. This is where I work, send emails, design for my clients, and surf the internet. I sat down on my chair and went to type something into Google but found myself suddenly stopping. In that moment I started to question what I was doing rather just functioning on autopilot. What was it that I was after? What was I searching for? Did I really need to be in front of the computer for another hour of the day? It has become so common place to give up hours of my life to this screen in the corner of the room or the screen in the palm of my hand. Such is the power of the computer. And it is evident everywhere, how many times have you seen couples staring into their phones over dinner in a restaurant? The perfect example of unadulterated romantic love! How many times have you seen, or even been that zombie walking down the street staring into your hypnotic 4-inch screen?
So, I sat staring at the screen just meditating on what was happening. There was a need, a want, a desire to search on Google. This instructed my hand to move to the keyboard and start to type a word, a phrase or question which in turn would create a journey through the digital noosphere organised and directed by an algorithm. Just one word would return an avalanche of responses, web pages, advertising. My question into Google would leave a digital paper trail. I would be presented essentially with choice, which would lead to me to even more choice and depending on my needs, my emotions in the moment, my own personal psychology, the endless ineluctable labyrinthine world of the internet could keep me forever digging around.
The question I kept asking myself was, what do I really want out of this? What is this adding to my life? And it is there that the real answer lies. In amongst all the digital transforming of our lives, what is it actually adding? And I don’t mean this in a negative critical way, I mean this as an improvement in my life, as a move forward in all our lives. I personally think there are plenty of excellent advantages to the digitisation of our existence, but also some huge pitfalls too. In short, I wanted to stop and think, really cogitate on what I was doing and use the computer for what I needed, rather than in an odd sense, it use me. Let its battery be drained before it drained mine!
There’s no doubt about it, we are addicted to information. Just plug the USB into our temple and let the digits flow. What the intellectual level of that information is, is open to question. In the moment that I search for something I am presented with a plethora of other segments of information setting off fireworks in my skull and keeping me entranced with ineluctable force. But what am I truly achieving? If we weigh up all the time we sit in front of these digital magnets, I bet, actually I almost guarantee we waste more time than time that is truly put to good use. Of course, there are certain places on the internet designed purely to keep you entranced and hypnotised as we know, namely social networks, and they hugely benefit from this with, one word: advertising. As has been stated, if the product or service is free, then ‘you’ are the product. Someone is benefiting from you. You are there for a purpose, to push adverts into your field of vision while you scroll helplessly devoted to what amounts to essentially cheap low brow voyeurism. But this is nothing new. Let’s take TV as an example, the product is the audience to which advertising is sold. The shows are less important which is clearly evident when such schlock as Gogglebox is produced. Again, cheap low brow voyeurism.
People talk about a time in the future when computers will control us and society, but I think they already do. Unconsciously we are already incredibly reliant on them. The minute we need to know something our first reaction now is to ‘Google it’ (you know how intertwined and embraced by society something is when it becomes a household term) rather than sit, muse, and contemplate the answer. I’m not suggesting don’t ever look anything up, that would be absurd, but to find yourself never thinking things through, never philosophising, never reflecting, never cogitating, and just googling answers won’t help you to grow as an individual, in fact you will just be giving more power to the computer. And the people that run society want this. If you can be converted into a helpless no questioning consumer, you’re their perfect citizen.
As someone who works in the digital transformation industry as a User Experience consultant I’m always interested in the relationship between a product and the user, how to make that journey simple for the user to attain their goal and how to meet the businesses’ goal. This is important for both parties. In fact, it’s essential. People want/need to purchase things and companies want to sell products or their services. Performing this role enables me to gain great insight into the behaviour of the consumer, the user, well let’s be frank, humans. The internet has the ability to work in two ways where ecommerce is concerned, one to help people buy their goods and enable businesses to flourish, the other is to manipulate people with disinformation and highly manipulative marketing techniques to buy products they don’t actually need. As creators of products in my industry we are able to make choices that will affect others using the products, software or service. It is to a degree within our control as to whether we want to create a more equitable friendly internet experience or just trap people into becoming mindless consumers. Given that the internet is a fully digital experience owned and now controlled by a few, it’s important, in my opinion and others to create the best human experience possible and try to enlighten others into this thinking before we truly become too digitised and owned.
I have been thinking about this for a few years now. I’ve always been interested in the relationships between people and technology, how people react and function when presented with certain choices and how easily people are influenced by the gadget in their hands. This article was prompted by a book I read by Jaron Lanier titled “You are not a gadget” in which he covers the above and plenty more with regards to the future and current state of the internet. I highly recommend that you buy the book and read it, and others like it. Computers, smartphones, and the internet are still incredibly new in our lives and showing to be highly powerful and influential, sometimes for good and other times for bad. We need to develop some digital intellectual self-defence if we are to ensure we don’t end becoming prisoners of our own making in the information age.
If we just take the time to think, we will realise how much power we actually have.
Image by Mika Baumeister