This doesn’t happen to me all that often. I’m so enmeshed in technology and the web that by the time some technology is deployed deep enough in the wild that I randomly encounter it, it’s already passé — old news — and entirely unsurprising. Rare is the moment when I think, “Wow, this really changes things.”
However, I had one of those experiences today, and it’s particularly compelling for two reasons: the realization of the alignment of so many different contemporary “advances” (technological, cultural and social) and the coincidence of a particular news story which I’ll turn to momentarily.
So what happened?
Well, Brynn and I went to a physical OfficeMax store, determined to buy some kind of corkboard or dry-erase board for our new home office (which we’ve dubbed “The War Room”). Simple enough, and you’d think that a place like OfficeMax would be able to help.
Apparently we were wrong. Between the shoddy made-in-some-third-world-country quality of the products to the clerks whose eyes screamed “I’m going to kill myself with a ballpoint pen in the eye if you ask me a question”, OfficeMax was at once the most depressing and hapless places I have ever shopped. Even worse than KB Toys. Yes, it was that bad.
Ultimately we found what we were looking for, except that every single board was damaged in some way. When we reluctantly asked the clerk if there were any more in storage, he seemed to shrug absentmindedly, as though such damage was par for the course.
Frustrated, I decided to take a picture of our discovery to see what Amazon might later offer us. I didn’t just use my iPhone’s Camera app — no no! — instead I launched the Amazon.com app and used a feature called “Amazon Remembers” — a clever little twist on their Wish List feature that lets you take a photo of something to remember it later.
And then the magic began.
You see, once you take a photo and save it, it’s automatically compressed and uploaded to Amazon. It’s saved for you to retrieve later, but lo, they also ship off a copy to Mechanical Turk, so some busybody on the interwebs can come along and complete what’s known as a HIT (or “Human Intelligence Tasks”) and identify the product that you’ve snapped, sending you a link to the product on Amazon.com. Within minutes.
Of course you can imagine who’s getting my business in this situation.
But let’s think about this for a moment!
What I find so incredible about this experience is how commonplace it feels — how downright banal it seems to me to be able to take a photo of a product (with a cell phone), upload it over a cellular network (EDGE no less!), have it be put into a queue where humans are waiting to do something to the photo (at pennies on the dollar, mind you), whose output — in a fraction of the time it might have taken me to perform the same task — will be returned to me in the form of a hyperlinked product that I can add to my cart and have shipped directly to my doorstep — free with Amazon Prime.
The cynical among us might call this the ultimate in instant gratification; others might think of this as merely modern convenience in a globally-connected, cloudy world. Frankly, it’s a bit of both. But I also think of it as the best example of what I’ve called “connected commerce” — with a splash of Web 2.0’s “networks get better the more people use them” adage thrown in for good measure.
So, let’s turn to that piece of news that I mentioned.
As it happened, on our drive over to OfficeMax, I heard a rather disturbing segment on the BBC that announced that Australia and the US have decided to jointly launch a contest to fund the development of autonomous military robots for fighting in tight, urban environments.
As the announcer put it: “the winning design must demonstrate the ability to neutralize the enemy.” Or as Zack de la Rocha said it best: And neutralize them. And neutralize them. And neutralize them.
I mean, we’ve seen this movie before, right? Did these guys not get the memo or something? (Or did they?!)
In any case, here is this personal encounter that I had— exemplified by leveraged social media against the commercial experience — starkly juxtaposed against a much more ominous, darkly situation — where robots fight in place of humans — doing the so-called “dirty work” — in situations where it is presumably becoming increasingly expedient to use non-human agents to neutralize human dissenters! What if such technology were brought to bear in China or Iran? What would the Twitterverse have to say then?
Any way you slice it, it is clear that the technology that we create — and are engaged in creating — remains ambivalent about the fate of humankind.
How we, as individuals, choose to apply the technology still makes all the difference. The consequences of our decisions resonate. Just like those who originally investigated, researched and developed the technology that made nuclear weapons possible — those of us who make possible robotics, neural networks, smart, geo-positioned social networks and sentient, sensing computing apparati will someday be faced with a similar dilemma: do we continue to doggedly pursue the modern, human-benefitting conveniences that many people increasingly and blindly rely upon? Are they worth seeing through to their logical, amoral conclusions — regardless of outcome on civil society — or do we, at some point, say STOP!, and leave well enough alone?
It should come as no surprise that my presumption is we are past the point of stopping — that Daniel Quinn wasn’t wrong — he just didn’t capture the spirit broadly. The rules change over time. More importantly, we will be forced to cope with what we have wrought — as part of the unconscious effort to realize the full potential of social and commercial technology.
Of course this alarms me greatly, but it’s nothing I didn’t already know.
In the meantime, I’m tickled pink to outfit “The War Room” with a new magnetic, dry-erase whiteboard, shipped in pristine condition and scheduled to arrive no later than Thursday of this week. I can’t even begin to imagine all the great ideas I’ll come up with on the thing.