Who does technology think we are?

design
philosophy
technology
wellbeing
ethics

#1

I remember a panelist at a debate on technology and society picking up a phone and asking Who (or what) does technology think we are? In this case, he said a pair of eye balls and a couple of fingers. Someone who was working on a major transport project responded with his own example of seeing designs for new trains made by male engineers of a similar age and background . This respondent discussed how having recently had children, he couldn’t believe the trains’ initial design didn’t have toilets. He couldn’t imagine a journey not having access to toilets. The engineers had thought because the average trip might be less than 30 minutes, they wouldn’t be needed. They lacked understanding and empathy for the cases of young children, infirm, ill, incontinent and other users. Their technology it seemed was built for an average user, or an approximation, and it seemed, this approximation was themselves give or take a couple of standards. Mobile, healthy etc.

What prompted me to write this was coming across an advert for a new Motorola phone (so there is no excuse) -

Simply stunning selfies

The 8 MP front camera with LED flash includes beautification mode, which smoothes skin and reduces blemishes and wrinkles.

Well, this technology says you/we are imperfect and shouldn’t be happy with how we really look. Instead we should conform to an ‘ideal’ understood by an algorithm.


#2

I would add “… and a wallet” to this :slight_smile:

This is - besides a technology issue - also something of a marketing trick, where marketers do everything to make us feel imperfect and needing to lose weight, use make-up, etcetera and ultimately buy tons of products we really do not need.
Glossy magazine show us only ultra-thin, photoshopped models and ultra-fit guys with huge six-packs. Dating shows on TV have youthful people with perfect bodies frollicking around, etc. And now a technology provider plays into that by adding a self-marketing feature: photoshop yourself easily and quick.


#3

quite! Wallet and the ability to view an advert!


#4

Who does technology think we are? An interesting question, but perhaps only because it’s cleverly phrased. I feel that it prompts a follow-up question, which is

Who do we think technology is?

Your question attributes “technology” with the ability to think and to know its audience. Well, who is this “technology” doing the thinking? I don’t think your individual phone is conscious of who its user is, nor is a specific model of a phone. Nor is it any one engineer/designer who formulates the overall design of that phone. So who is responsible? We can’t reach out and contact Technology and ask it why it is storing all of our data. Let’s try to be more specific. Who do we want to point our fingers at? Tim Cook? The Google guys? Samsung executives? I don’t know.


#5

Hi Jon,

Your post makes me think about how fragile the vulnerabilities of the human mind are. Tech companies are tapping into those vulnerabilities and exploiting them for profit. This meddling with human lives to this degree can’t lead to anywhere good. Sure, some can argue that companies of all kinds have been doing this for years through the advertising and marketing of their products and services, but these tech companies are at a whole other level. They really need to consider if what they are creating is truly in the best interest of their consumers.


#6

Thanks @afuchs, and you’re quite right, there is a lack of specifics in my post. I was mirroring the rather open-ended challenge to change perspective when looking at devices or constructions of technology, and to see how people took the question. I don’t think the original provocation, or my own, was designed to anthropomorphise the objects, but the language used, as you point, does lend itself to that. I do apologise for the lack of clarity though.

ou pick up on who (and what) do we think technology is. I’m aware that I have been using the term loosely, as I’m sure many others have, because we’re writing informally, but there does come an issue (which I found in cross-disciplinary research) where even when we are all using the same word, we often have very different understandings. It would be useful to have some distinction on what technology we wish to be humane within this forum, and I guess that’s for us all to debate. A plough, a can opener, a microwave, pencil sharpener and abacus could all fall under technology, but even with the assumption we are talking about digital technologies, then there are myriad categories and ecosystems. Perhaps we should talk about hardware, software, code-space (see Rob Kitchin’s work on this), networks - though you could have virtual space, AI, robotics, nanotech, posthumanism and others as categories. Has anyone set-out anything on the forum so far?

coming back to your point the technological devices I was alluding to I’d split into three elements to break down into who/what it is:

  1. Specification
  2. Business model
  3. Interface/interaction

behind that, well you could use things like actor-network theory or object oriented ontology to work out the overall systems/networks that technology arises from. Things like the systems of provision that creates the technology. I feel like you’ve opened pandora’s box because I realise how many assumptions are woven into what I wrote!

The essence of my original post was for a subjective questioning of a technological artifact to see how it made you interact with it, what it reduces you to (if you feel that way at all), who is restricted from using it, how are you restricted in using it, what assumptions about the user are implicit in the three areas I outlined above. it could be something as simple as it being designed for right-handed people, or it could be an OS that suggests users cannot be trusted to modify things, an app that believes you only want recommendations of more of the same. Kitchin’s code-space shows how certain hardware and software (or combination) alters how we use space and interact with our surroundings, and that too can be questioned (for example self-service checkouts). Alexa et al say to me, you are someone who prefers to talk than type, to feel a more ‘natural’ connection with technology that appears to be intelligent, to be free from cords and physical interaction, to not want multiple interfaces for multiple devices. You could draw other conclusions.

I think I muddied the waters with the motorola reference as I laid some blame for it and used a subjective interpretation that its selfie filter is bad, and that it implies that we are imperfect. A more careful analysis would separate out these points perhaps.

So, this wasn’t about blame, there isn’t necessarily anything ‘wrong’, but perspective, analysis, and asking questions to try to reveal assumptions and think about our interface, interaction and inclusion with ‘technology’. The problem of writing this whilst I am ill is that it’ll probably make even less sense than normal, so apologies in advance, but thanks for a good question!


#7

Couple of decades ago I think that I came up with a little bit similar question: when you watch television, what does the television do? My answer then was: it keeps you watching.

Now we of course understand this relationship much better, as we know that e.g. social media and games can keep us attached to our devices really much more than television ever did. The answer to the dilemma I think is most likely coming up with business model that takes away much of the reasons to keep the user maximally hooked. Subscription model is not only one to that direction (and it also tends to mean “maximally hooked”).

Here are couple of thoughts that I will be writing more about in dreamsorientedcomputing.com :

  • view information as suggestions
  • view system as part of us

These are currently subchapters under chapter named “freedom”.


#8

You started an interesting discussion @Jon! And @afuchs gave it a cool twist.

So we have “Who does technology think we are?” --> “Who do we think technology is?

In another topic there was the statement ‘Technology is never neutral’. I would like to bring nuance to that statement by saying: The science behind the technology is (mostly) neutral, but the application of the technology is (most often) not.

@afuchs makes the important statement “So who is responsible?”, but given that this kind of technology application is so widespread we should better ask “So what is responsible?”.

The breakdown @Jon provides - while valid - still doesn’t cut to the core. The Specification and Interface/interaction aspects are at the level of product design - they are late in the decision process, so are not the reason. Business model is mentioned very often as the thing that leads to wrong, unethical technology applications. But this also doesn’t cut it, because “Why choose a particular business model?”.

Root cause

I think a small root-cause analysis is in order (I’ll make some quick jumps, the gist is important, but a proper fishbone analysis would be interesting):

  • A company releases a product that is not aligned with humanity’s best interests - Why?
  • The product is developed to be viable in current market environment with the hightest, quickest ROI - Why?
  • The competition will jump into any opportunity you leave untouched and investors can make a quicker buck elsewhere - Why?
  • Business and economy worldwide is conducted as a ‘survival of the fittest’ zero-sum game - Why?
  • Nature itself is survival of the fittest and in human nature the strive for wealth and power is defined as success in this game

Note that the business model is not in this analysis. It is a side issue, and we can all find plenty examples of bad technology use in any arbitrary business model. But some models are more successful in winning than others.

This all is very much simplified, of course, but I think it reflects the essence of what we are seeing all around us. We have given rise to economic models that work really well, because they are aligned with nature… in a way.

The Problem

Our economic models are the root cause of why technology is not aligned with humanity’s best interests!

These models - letting the markets run free - have proven to be incredibly successful! The free-market thinkers are spot on when stating this. But the problem is that this pertains only to the winners of the game. And running a survival of the fittest game to its natural conclusion means there will be ever less winners, and those that are will be ever more powerful - a vicious cycle. Right now we have a huge wealth pyramid… but in a couple of years it will be more like a pushpin, with a very broad base and a very thin, high spike in the middle.

We can call this model capitalism, but this is a loaded term. Note that I am not an anti-capitalist at all. I believe in economy and markets as part of human society. It’s just the particular forms of capitalism that I am against. There are many types of the wrong kinds of capitalism: predatory capitalism, casino capitalism, disaster capitalism, surveillance capitalism, etc.

To be a winner in these kinds of systems it helps if you are prepared to walk on the edge, and break the rules if you can get away with it. And to continuously weaken the rules. Being moral and ethical will give you a disadvantage in the game.

So if you are in the oil business, it is helpful to be a climate denier and fight against the science. If someone is threatening your economic model, you call him a ‘darn commie’ and make sure that term has a truly bad connotation. Globalization is also a natural phenomenon in this game - the water flows to the lowest points - and in those places where you are threatened by globalization you opportunistically adopt protectionist policies, if only temporary. Wherever civilians - those people that are lower in the pyramid - demand their well-earned rights, you try to weaken them. Etcetera…

The Solution

We all know this is what is at play in some sense. So how do we change that?

Well, in a way, the solution is simple: Just don’t play this game! We can follow our natural instincts, but a good human trait is that we can apply civility and culture to change our ways.

This then boils down to changing our mindset, and raising awareness of the need to do that. We have to redefine what success means. Personally I have come to the insight that money and power means nothing. I’d rather be healthy and happy. If that is on a small salary, with humble possessions, then that is totally fine.

If people would adopt the same mindset en masse, then the rules can be changed and the game would be played differently.

The Way Forward

Here lies the challenge, of course, as this means a big threat to the current winners; a threat to their definition of success. So in order to succeed what is needed are alternative economic and business models that can co-exist and grow side-by-side with our current destructive capitalistic systems.

Am I making sense, or do you think I am rambling? :slight_smile:


What is big data? And how do we democratize it?
#9

Throw away your smartphone—or better yet, donate it to a women’s shelter.

See, behavioral changes are not so easy, are they? :slight_smile:


#10

No, indeed they are not. That’s why I say “in a way” the solution is simple :slight_smile:

But adopting a different mindset is still hard. It helps when you realize you are on the losing end of a zero-sum game. And I think more and more become aware of this and are making changes to their lives. Small changes mostly… but that’s where it starts. It is in those small changes you can find real value. And as more people join in, then doing this becomes ever easier. You can see these - mostly grassroots - trends all around us.

You need not ditch your smartphone right away. Just start by protecting your privacy on it, don’t freely give away that data. Then don’t upgrade to the latest model anymore as soon as they become available. Use the thing as long as possible. Go to a Repair Cafe to switch the battery when needed (producers make smartphones intentionally irrepairable or very expensive to repair… thou shalt consume).

Slowly change your food buying habits. Eat a bit less meat, and have a couple of meatless days. Use the money you spare to buy unprocessed ingredients, vegetables. Buy them at a local shop, or even directly from a farmer, not a supermarket. Be smart on what you buy… take some time to compare. In Holland real ecological butter has become cheaper than a lot of margarine brands (made from crappy materials, palm oil and water). Pay with real cash, not digital money (this will become more important in future with the trend to eradicate cash… we’ll be using social credit apps instead).

Etcetera…

While I seem to be going off-topic this is not the case. This is about changing our relationship to technology and decreasing our dependence on it. This gives us more choice. More freedom.

And the fact that we are still consumers will make it more imperative for producers to adapt to these trends, as we can see with FB and Google suddenly talking about building in TWS features in their products and services (even though they are mostly superficial still). If we change our lifestyle, our relation to technology, there will be new USP’s for them and competitors alike. Solutions that are better aligned to humanity.

That’s my theory at least :slight_smile:


#11

Sounds very good. I salute your attempts.

I’ve made a small change: to Firefox, though I sometimes have to use Chrome because of those darn cookies.


#12

There is a whole field of professional practise dedicated to this, it is User Experience Design. When appiled well and regularly to a product in an org that respects and trusts it’s product teams and have diverse staff, inclusive methods are used to explore and understand how tech can n
be delivered fo a wide range of people with different needs.


#13

@aschrijver Equality depends on where you live. If you’re from Holland, you’re one of the most fortunate in the world. Europe is not only the most equal continent in the world, it is also probably the wealthiest.

Technology and the globalisation it brings can’t and shouldn’t be undone. They are bringing so many amazing improvements in living standards to the most of the world. However unfortunately technology is helping bring wealth inequality back into the world where the top 1% are now back to the levels where they were in the 1930s and 1940s, and this is very troubling.

“Top 1%” means getting about 28,500 Euros or more a year in income. Anyone in that group is part of the 1% “problem” because they’re clearly taking more than their fair share, and if that money instead went to the bottom 50% they would be able to eat better and get a better education. In an ideal world!

I admire Europe very much for helping their own citizens, but they’re helping their own citizens. If you want an adventure, see try to make it without your passport. I really mean that, actually I have done it! I too have a super rich world passport but I have decided 10 years ago to put myself on equal footing and fight it out on the internet where my passport means nothing. I decided that technology and globalisation is coming and I should embrace it and in fact try to promote it. So I quit my comfy high paying government job where I worked 2 hours a day. I never regretted it for an instant, even though I would have had more money if I stayed part of the rich world’s boring system. Now I have the pleasure of making less money, while never having received any benefits in my life or ever even had health insurance since I quit that job, and paying high taxes to support people who live in one of the richest countries in the world but aren’t as skilled as myself. And that’s the way it should be, better off people have to give so that others can live well too. I hope technology and globalisation will continue, and the world will do away with its borders so that the money will instead go to where it belongs, the bottom 50% who now make 1000 Euros or less a year. There is no sense in giving people in rich countries 10,000 Euros a year in social support if we can instead one day give it to the bottom 50% in the world who are so much more in need. I don’t know if technology will ever abolish nations and borders, but I hope so.


#14

Yes, I am well aware of the 1% threshold and the comfortable position of most western countries in this regard. And your link to the Global Rich List is a great help to show more people their favourable position, and that they do not have much to complain because they are technically within the 1% or close to it.

Wealth inequality

But when those people mention “the elite 1%” this is mostly an easy way to mean the real elite, and to wealth inequality phenomena more like this:

“The three richest people in the US – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett – own as much wealth as the bottom half of the US population, or 160 million people.” - The Guardian

and:

“An alarming projection produced by the House of Commons library suggests that if trends seen since the 2008 financial crash were to continue, then the top 1% will hold 64% of the world’s wealth by 2030.” - The Guardian

Note that while the last statement uses the 1% segment, within this segment the wealth inequality gap is also growing. So I don’t expect the ones earning 30,000 yearly to be much better off in 2030, and it will be mostly the 0.1% within the 1% that stand to gain most.

I admire your efforts to really change your lifestyle and truly contribute to a fairer world. Like you I am aware of the prolems for a long time, and I have never been prone to mindless consumerism (I value quality products that will last a lifetime, and knowing I can use something for many years without replacing gives me great satisfaction). But only in the last 3 years I realized I should be prepared to do with much less. To be much more modest. And that - for a sustainable inhabitation of our planet - much more people should be prepared to do the same.

Globalization

Your approach to globalization is the proper one: Globalization for the benefit of humanity! An often heard benefit of globalization is that is has caused “more people to live above the poverty line than ever before”.

But there is a huge, huge problem with current globalization trends, and your stimulation of them might only serve to worsen them. The problem is that globalization is also mostly driven by the elites, but for different reasons, namely:

  1. To lower production costs, and maximize profits (the capitalist zero-sum game)
  2. To open new markets for (western-style) consumerism
  3. For reasons of tax avoidance, moving wealth to safe havens

From this perspective the wealth increase of the poor is only an undesirable side-effect. It is caused by reason 1, when production is moved to a low-income country, but when wealth standards increase then this work flows to other countries and regions, and the enriched population is now subjected to reason 2. - participating in the capitalist dance.

Of course, they are better off in some ways - e.g. having access to modern medicine and other technology that improves life. But they are now subjected and addicted to money and debt (where before they could live from bartering. I am also worried on micro-financing trends in this regard). Traditional markets that functioned well for centuries no longer do (e.g. the sending of 2nd-hand clothes to Africa has destroyed entire clothing markets). Productivity requirements in agriculture means small farmes can no longer keep up, they lose their living, and either have to work for big land owners (as with the palm oil plantations in Asia), or move to the city to eek out a living (urbanisation).

I wonder whether this wealth increase is only temporary, and whether these people are truly better off in the long run. I think current globalization only speeds up wealth inequality. The production flows to where it is cheapest regardless of negative effects. The big producers close their eyes to this if abuses are further along the supply, and they can get away with it. We see this with the e.g. the Apple and fashion brand sweatshops that now move from China to Bangladesh because of pay rises and increased worker awareness. And we see it with slavery:

“There Are More Slaves Today Than at Any Time in Human History” - AlterNet

We have to ask ourselves: Why are those people in countries that have the richest resources also the poorest? This is because of our exploitation of them, that dates back from colonial times, but still continues to this day. And that is a model that is now copied by new upcoming economies that join in on this feeding frenzy.

Conscious consumers

The obvious solution to the globalization problems - one that leads to the beneficial type of globalization - is consumer awareness, where consumers make informed choices. They buy quality products that are durable, that are fair-trade and ecological, and they have a critical eye on how production takes place, raising their voice and ultimately boycotting products when required.

Unfortunately here it is also the western countries where this is easier to do than in developing countries, as we are much further in awareness, and have the wealth and luxure to make different choices (I recently saw a documentary about rural areas in India where people intentionally litter their front-yard with plastic wrappings of western products to display their wealth to their community).

The upcoming tech revolution

To bring this back to CHT mission: The gigantic tech revolution in AI and Robotics that has only just started can go both ways. On the one hand it has the potential to bring great technological advancements within reach of most of the human population, make them affordable. On the other hand - and this is where the CHT should play a role - there are some great dangers, also to the ‘under-developed’ world:

I believe it was in the great Do you trust this computer? documentary, where they showed a robot having enormous dexterity that could replace 2 workers in a production line, doing arbitrary production tasks. Now that robot cost (I think) about 40,000 dollars, and can work 24 hrs a day without pausing, without leave of absence. Let’s say that this robot can last without much maintenance for about 10 years…

This means that it could replace workers earning $ 2,000,- yearly!!

And this is only just right now, at the beginning of this revolution. There is talk about the benefits of this revolution… “people no longer have to work” and we can have a Universal Basic Income and develop ourselves along our interests and hobbies.

But I fear this is just a pipe dream, as long as the robotics factories and tecnology development are solely in the hands of the elites, as they are now.


#16

@aschrijver Thank you, as always you are a wealth of information and analyses. You’ve also helped to remind me of many important ethical stances that I also agree with.

I would like to warn about seeing things from many sides.

Some types of jobs will be replaced by technology and others won’t, as always in history.

Technology will continue to bring more good things than it has bad, as always in history.

You paint a very clear picture of globalisation and how too often it is about the rich manipulating the poor. But what about the other side of that, where the world unites and slowly gets rid of borders, nations and all become more equal?

Certainly technology is a domain of too much evil, and is easy to abuse yet there is so much good.

It’s easy to bury our heads, but then we miss many of the good opportunities in life if we’re too sceptical to the good things technology is bringing, and surely technology will bring even better things soon and will continue to revolutionise our lives in huge ways.

It’s up to us to change the ethics of technology though. We need an awakening, and I hope that ethical technologies will be the products of choice for early adaptors and techies in the know. But first wee need the creation of certified ethical technology that can replace the “we do evil” Googles and Facebooks of the world.


#17

And thank you for reminding me of that, @anon76657042 :slight_smile:

I should have ended my last post on a more positive note, as I believe very much in this concept, like you do. I’ve argued in a number of other posts that the solution to the problems of out-of-control capitalism are new systems that can co-exist and grow alongside our capitalist reality. Grassroots movements mostly, where people unite and cooperate. Movements that intermingle and knit together, to create form an alternative reality ultimately. Where human values are central again and technology is there to serve that cause, in indeed ethical applications. We should not shun the technology, because it is here to stay.

The reason why I spent so many lines of text on going into explaining what I think are the root causes of our technology problems, is that so many people seem to miss that, and dive too quickly IMHO into finding solutions to symptoms, and leaving the root cause untouched. I think this myopia hampers the awakening, and makes real solutions harder in the end.

I like the metaphor of a weight scales where negative and positive forces are on each end. There is - with current technology and human potential - an unprecedented opportunity to have the scales tip to the positive side. However, unless there is a coordinated effort involving many aware people - the cultural awakening - the scales are set to drop to the negative end.

Regarding my opinion of this I also intend to talk to the CHT core team (specifically @Mamie and @Randy), because personally I think the current description of Cultural Awakening category is also forgoing the root cause, and is more on the Time Well Spent level of awareness:

Let’s use this forum to raise our individual and collective awareness to recognize the difference between technology designed to extract the most attention from us, and technology whose goals are aligned with our own.

But this could well be the intended scope of the CHT. If that is so, then it is already a very good start :slight_smile:


#18

Great discussion between you two.

Both of you should read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He talks about the narrative fallacy, particularly with regard to history as a social science. And he says that we can’t predict—as long as we rely on historians and other “experts”—events that will profoundly affect our lives.

This means that we have to look at the future not with the confidence and biases of experts—who tend to rely on other experts—but with the skepticism and caution of empiricists.


#19

@aschrijver You’re really an excellent writer and intellectual, so I would encourage you to publish a book on the topic, or start a website of your writings. A movement can only go as far forward as its thought leader can take it, and as far as I can tell that person is you.

I really mean that about your writing. I have many close relations who’ve published, but your writing quality is really better in comparison. I suspect you’re wasted on programming and your talents might be better used in communication.


#20

According to Taleb Black Swan Theory has 3 attributes:
“First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Yes thank you @patm this is true that technology can bring paradigm shifts. I would suspect that most of the technology we’re developing now are not unpredictable and still follow the flow of current and recent historical tech.

If there are any Black Swans out there now in my opinion, that would be smartphone and app use because it has led to addition and overuse. The unpredictable thing was, tech companies started to gamefy and make everything addictive in pursuit of better metrics, combined with the always-with-you nature of phones, notifications and the interweaving of life and technologies via social networks.

However the bigger explosive change would be the dawn of true artificial intelligence.

All businesses run on improving their metrics, and that’s how we’ve gotten into this mess and can’t get out with the current companies. Google and Facebook are the bigest not because they are the best, it’s because they grow their user base, user attention, user tracking, advertising and profits maximally and unethically. All while having slick PR convincing us they are cool, “don’t do evil” and are helping the world.

A company that is actually aligned with user interests would make that clear and unquestionable. There are many great examples in not-for-profits. I do believe it is possible in for-profits companies, but there will always be compromise.

Simply put if a company was aligned with users’ goals, they would have to be completely free products and no ads, and no tracking or selling of personal data either of course. In short there would be no way to make any money.

So mathematically speaking our goals can not possibly align completely with any for-profit technology company’s goals. Correct me if I’m wrong.


#21

Many thanks, @anon76657042.

The thing that makes black swans difficult to predict is that they are events, not objects. Taleb mentions two in particular: 9/11 and the financial crises of the 2000s.

He has a great analysis of what he calls ludic fallacies and the predictions of casinos, which formulate all sorts of protections in order to stay in business. He analyzes his own thinking prior to certain discoveries about the gambling industry and finds himself lacking, realizing that he has been misled by his own assumptions and what he took for intelligence.

I would say that anyone who seeks to understand Taleb’s thinking in all its complexity and subtlety should read his book. I would love to discuss it with others on this forum for this reason: its advice that we be skeptical and think for ourselves will do us more good than the scare tactics of any anti-X group. What we should be most vigilant about are the errors and shortcomings in our thinking. Because it’s upon ourselves—our consciences, our hearts, our moral strength—that we must depend when our lives are threatened.