Friday, October 14, 2016

Smart Devices, Dumber People

            The word “smart” has taken on a whole new meaning in the age of digital technology.  It used to refer to a quality of intelligence exercised primarily by humans, but also by higher-level animals in general.  Now it is being applied to certain higher-level machines.  The machine with which smart has been most commonly associated is a modern phone.  In this context, it means the ability of these phones to perform multiple narrowly defined discrete functions and, in so doing, eliminate the necessity to carry around multiple devices, each of which would be performing a separate function.  A smart device denotes competence, but it also implies convenience.

            Getting back to a premise that has remained pretty constant throughout the existence of this column, people gradually become what they use when it relates to complex behavioral entities.  And there is definitely a danger of people beginning to unconsciously model themselves after the smart devices that they increasingly can’t live without.

            An important thing to emphasize about smartphones is that the many different functions that it can perform are distinct from one another and are only grouped together for purposes of convenience.  This idea of creating a grouping of different functions is now to be found in a smart bottle.  In SmartBrief, an online business newsletter, there is a discussion of the Hydra Smartbottle (“Hydra Smartbottle supplies water, music and light” [8/15/2016]), which, as the title partly indicates, not only provides water, but is also “a music device, charger, bottle opener, storage unit and light source”  What makes the device smart is not that it does any single task that indicates complexity or profundity, but that it does several different tasks that one does not normally think of as being able to be performed by one single machine.  Nevertheless, these different tasks can be used in the same life situation.  One can imagine a situation where one is sitting outdoors at night.  One is drinking water, listening to music and lighting up one’s surroundings.  In doing this, one is using a device that is temporarily transformational to one’s field of experience.  A smart device like a Smartbottle is experientially transformational rather than simply task transformational.  It not only changes the way we achieve goals through  defined discrete activities, but it also changes the very way we experience our grounded connections to our external living environment.  The device tears apart our grounded field of experience, which we normally experience as a unified whole, and turns it into a bundle of defined discrete processes, each of which can be acted upon separately and manipulated for our individual purposes.  Our sense of personal agency over different life processes becomes more unified even as our experience of our field of experience becomes more broken up.

            From another perspective, having many tasks tied up in one device means that there are no experiential spaces between the carrying out of these different life processes.  It’s not like one has to put down one device appropriate for one life task and pick up another.  It is having momentary spaces between the use of different devices that allows a person to unconsciously recognize that his own personal agency from his own coherent sense of self is what holds together these life tasks.  No matter how advanced and sophisticated some of these tasks are, when they are carried out by separate devices with separate functions, a user still becomes aware that his consciousness and his will are what generate the fulfillment of these tasks for his purposes.  His consciousness and his will are the unifying forces behind the activation and the completion of the tasks that correspond to these different devices.

            So what will happen if we start making other collections or bundles of solutions for life need and desires and put them in other smart devices.  This is different from the internet of things where truly complementary tasks are made to coordinate together through the exchange of data.  The tasks in a smartphone or SmartBottle, although bundled together, do not necessarily complement each other in the same way.  The tasks from smart devices are juxtaposed together, but do not necessarily coordinate with one another.  They are bundled together, but they do not form a coherent task grouping.  There is no exchange of data to help them to perform together.

            One can say that rather than participating in a task pattern in the way that devices do in the internet of things, the processes in a smart device participate in a life rhythm pattern.  These functions, although not intrinsically connected, are functions that can smooth out the friction during the course of a day and add comfort and pleasure.  With all of these functions in one device, a person can be tempted to say, “Let the smart device take over many of my needs and desires.  I don’t have to spend much time thinking about strategies for satisfying myself, because much of it is here in one device.”

            One no longer even has to deal with the traditional life friction that used to exist of finding, setting up, and using different devices for different needs.  A traditional moral perspective would say that these devices make us lazy.  I would rather focus on how these smart devices encourage us to give up our sense of control, our sense of personal agency in our daily lives.  Smart devices are one more step in our giving up the opportunity to make decisions that lead to our feeling fully and vibrantly alive, to our making, preserving and receiving imprints, and to our preparing for death through a surrogate immortality of our making.

            Perhaps, one might say, that we have had something similar to smart devices in the Swiss Army knives and their imitators that have been on the market for a long time.  But a Swiss Army knife is used in situations where one is doing things, producing things, making imprints. Even though it bundles tools, this is offset by the fact that it facilitates active participation in the external world.  It facilitates stimulating our senses of self to create strategies using the tools in the Swiss Army knife to solve practical problems in the external world.  With a Swiss Army knife, we are acting on our living environment.  A smart device, on the other hand, deals primarily with consumption, makes us more passive, creates its own mediated living environment.  A Swiss Army knife helps us to be in the external world, while a smart device helps us to withdraw from it by creating new mediated fields of experience (smartphone apps) or by taking friction out of normal consumption life activities through the bundling of activities and thus weakening our connection to the external world.

            Making life too frictionless definitely has its downside.  Is it possible that eventually, everything will be done for humans either through the complementary tasking of the internet of things or through the bundling of all sorts of life tasks through smart devices?  On one level, that might sound like a life in paradise.  People could sit around all day watching their technology take care of all their needs.  But people need to make and preserve imprints to truly feel alive and to prepare for death.  Lacking the opportunity to do this because technology does so much, and feeling too numb to change things, eventually the expanding out of the influence of this consumer technology could lead to people experiencing modern life as a life in hell, a living death from which there is no easy escape.
© 2016 Laurence Mesirow 

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