Dependence on technology makes us more independent overall, but it also makes us more isolated. So, what happens if things come to the point where we depend on machines more than we depend on other human beings?
Earlier this month I attended a presentation about machine learning on mobile phones at Google IO 2019. Right now Google is spending a lot of time and money developing machine learning models and capabilities that operate solely within the mobile device. No connection to the internet is required. It’s a big deal.
During the presentation, the company showed a video that featured an illiterate woman in India who uses her phone’s text recognition features to read to her. All she needs to do is point the phone’s camera at a recipe or newspaper and the phone converts the text to speech.
I found the story inspiring as a technologist and as a human being. But it’s not all peaches and cream. At the end of the video, the woman said something that gave me pause. When talking about using the technology to book a train ticket, she said, “I can book it myself. I don’t need anyone’s help.”
There’s no doubt the phone liberated her, very much in the same way that the light bulb liberated millions of other people in times past, bringing human activity forward beyond the setting sun. Dependence on a particular technology can create greater independence overall. However, I do wonder what happens when things evolve to the point where we depend on machines more than we depend on others, when we no longer need “anyone’s help.”
To my thinking, human interdependence is the thread that binds the fabric of a society together. The thousands of little interdependencies that make up the human experience have beneficial side effects. To get along, we learn the basic rules of civility. We learn to say “please” and “thank you.” We learn how to wait in line at the DMV. We pick up after our dog. We open the door for others. It’s all part of the implicit contract that makes living with other people possible.
But, these days it seems we depend more on machines than the kindness of strangers. The fact is, you don’t have to be nice to a machine, even for a self-serving purpose. You can yell at your cell phone. You stick your tongue out at the ATM as it accepts your deposit. Whether you’re nice to it or not doesn’t matter. Your deposit is not going to be processed any faster or slower. Your cell phone isn’t going to disconnect you because you were rude to it.
Take away these simple rules of civility and strange things happen. It’s interesting that road rage is common, yet sidewalk rage is rare. Maybe wrapping ourselves up in a piece of silicon-powered transportation hardware predisposes us to a hostile attitude when interacting with others in the same situation.
As I stated earlier, depending on technology makes us more independent in the big picture. But, it also makes us more isolated. Whereas in the past, talking about the weather with a stranger might be a prelude to another conversation that’s more meaningful, today the stranger next to me usually has his ears plugged up listening to his own interests. And, if I really want to know about the weather, I can ask Alexa.
Modern technology gives me help on demand. I no longer ask a stranger for directions to the train station, I use my phone. It seems as if I need the help of others less during those small, random moments of vulnerability. A machine is but a voice prompt away. And, thus, the thread that binds me to the world at large gets a little bit looser.
Now don’t get me wrong—isolation is nothing new. Five hundred years ago most people never traveled far from where they were born except on very special occasions. Village life is a case study in group isolation. But, while villages were isolated from the outside world, inside the village it was a different story. The social fabric was dense; the threads were tight. Being shunned by the group was a matter of life and death.
Today we’re all over the place, literally. But we move in our own domains in which we end up wishing happy birthdays to people we’ve never met but who somehow have meaning to us by way of LinkedIn, Facebook and the plethora of other social platforms brought to life and sustained by something other than human labor.
Is this such a bad thing? Dunno. I like it that my phone is now my personal stenographer. It helps me think better. But, I’m not sure that Google Assistant will ever be a good best friend. What’s even stranger is that a time might come when I don’t even need one. It will be just me and my mobile device. Then I won’t need anyone’s help, ever.