February 28, 2013

Technology Fixing Technology, Augmented Reality Edition

Sergey Brin wearing Google Glasses at TED 2013

One of the more amusing characteristics of technological enthusiasts is their confidence that today’s brand new technology will fix the problems created by yesterday’s brand new technology.

Software programs that let you get some work done by temporarily turning off your access to emails and tweets are examples. Geoengineering describes a slew of technologies that might be able to save the planet from the slew of technologies that are destroying it.

The most recent example is the promise of Google co-founder Sergey Brin that his company’s newest product, Google Glass, will remedy the problems created by its previous product, the Android smartphone.

In a surprise talk at yesterday’s TED conference in California, Brin said that Google Glass will eliminate the need to shut out what’s going on around you in order to focus on your smartphone, a need he finds “emasculating.”

“You’re actually socially isolating yourself with your phone,” Brin told the audience, according to Wired. “I feel like it’s kind of emasculating…. You’re standing there just rubbing this featureless piece of glass.”

(The photographs from Brin’s appearance make it clear, by the way, that this once-geeky zillionaire has been working out, adding significantly to his personal masculinity profile.)

By layering data over our field of vision – “augmented reality” is what it’s called – Google Glass will free us  from the shackles of outdated technology, Brin said. He again showed an odd proclivity for phallic imagery by holding up a smartphone and declaring, “I whip this out and focus on it as though I have something very important to attend to. This [Google Glass] really takes away that excuse.…It really opened my eyes to how much of my life I spent secluded away in email or social posts.”

The last line in that quote bears repeating: “It really opened my eyes to how much of my life I spent secluded away in email or social posts.”

Members of Google’s sales staff may have cringed when they heard that, given that the company’s business still depends, for now at least, on people being immersed in computers and smartphones.

Brin added that Google Glass is a step toward the attainment of his ultimate ambition: Direct implantation of data streams into the brain.

“My vision when we started Google 15 years ago,” he said, “was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all — the information would just come to you as you needed it. [Google Glass] is the first form factor that can deliver that vision.”

That digitally delivered information might itself be an intrusion, and that reality might not need any augmenting, are notions the technological enthusiast is not prepared to entertain.

Photo credit: TED/Flickr via Wired

February 27, 2013

Rethinking Embodiment at Yahoo!

As the tabloids might put it, tongues have been wagging in Silicon Valley over Yahoo's decision to eliminate telecommuting by its employees. It seems the company’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, wants to promote creativity by insisting on proximity. 

"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings," said the memo from the company’s head of Human Resources. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

Yahoo’s decision has been widely reported in the mainstream press, so I don’t need to rehash the details. I can’t, however, resist making three quick observations.

1. Mayer seems to be aggressively attacking a problem that stymied her predecessor, Carol Bartz: Institutional inertia.

I wrote a blog entry last October describing the inevitability of inertia at large, entrenched companies like Yahoo and Microsoft. The piece cited Bartz's response when asked during a conference if she had any advice for the woman who replaced her. Mayer shouldn't kid herself, Bartz replied, about turning things around overnight. 

“It’s very, very hard to affect culture,” she said. “And you can get surprised thinking you’re farther down the path of change than you really are because, frankly, most of us like the way things are.”

Mayer’s latest move seems designed to decisively shake up the status quo at Yahoo, and judging from the reactions the memo’s getting there, she’s succeeded. 

Marissa Mayer
2. Yahoo’s move deflates one of the reigning mythologies of the Internet revolution: That you don’t have to be in the same room to share genuine connection with your fellow human beings. “We need to be one Yahoo!,” the memo says, “and that starts with physically being together.”

Obviously this is not a philosophy Yahoo would hope to see adopted by its customers, whose communal needs the company would presumably prefer still be satisfied virtually.

3. Yahoo’s memo demonstrates a not-so-glittering side to Silicon Valley glamor. Ambitious young techies are lured to companies like Google and Facebook in part because they offer their employees the coolest possible office spaces and an endless supply of perks, from free cafeterias and on-site masseurs to pool tables, hot tubs, ice cream parlors, dry cleaners, and gyms. 

In truth, of course, all that coolness is there not only to promote collaboration and boost morale, but also to keep employees working at the office as long as possible.

The glamor in turn promotes another great myth: that technology is about freedom. The head of an outplacement firm, commenting on Yahoo's telecommuting decision in the New York Times, came closer to the truth.

“A lot of companies are afraid to let their workers work from home,” he said, “because they’re afraid they’ll lose control.”

©Doug Hill, 2013

February 26, 2013

Has Morality Become a Skeuomorph?

An early strategy for making new technology feel familiar

I was thinking this morning about two subjects that don't usually go together, skeuomorphs and morality.

A skeuomorph is a design element applied to a product that looks as if it's functional but really isn't. Its real purpose is to evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort. The literary critic N. Katherine Hayles cites as an example the dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which is made of synthetic plastic molded to look as if it's stitched fabric. 

Software designers use lots of skeuomorphs for their user interfaces; examples include the "pages" that seem to "turn" in e-readers and word processing programs. Hayles calls skeuomorphs “threshold devices." They "stitch together past and future," she says, "reassuring us that even as some things change, others persist."

For a few months last year Apple Computer took a lot of flack from the design cognoscenti for its dedication to skeuomorphs; the linen texture that appears as background on the iPod and the wooden bookshelf used for the iBook display were frequently cited examples. The company's skeuomorph aesthetic was said to be a legacy of Steve Jobs, who was convinced people needed recognizable touchstones to ease them through the uncharted expanses of cyberspace. 

Enough! cried the cognoscenti. The time for such reassurance has long since ended! So it was that cheers greeted the firing in October of Apple's software leader, Scott Forstall, carrier of the skeuomorphic torch, as well as the introduction of Microsoft's sleek new Metro Design, which doesn't pretend to be anything other than pixels on a screen. 

Apple's iBooks display
Although I'm pretty sensitive to the look and feel of things, my thoughts about skeuomorphs this morning had nothing to do with user interfaces. Rather I was thinking that perhaps the idea of a skeuomorph might be applied outside the domain of design, specifically to the realm of ethics. 

It seems likely that in an era of mass-market technology morality has become – not always, but often – a skeuomorph: a feature that's retained for the sake of appearances rather than any practical function. Any function, that is, other than that of reassuring people that even as some things change, others persist.

These admittedly dark thoughts were prompted by reading the cover story in last Sunday's New York Times magazine, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food." Reporter Michael Moss describes in brilliant detail the lengths to which America's biggest food and beverage conglomerates have gone to design products we can't get enough of, literally. Their profits and our waistlines get fatter. They prosper, we don't.

Moss opens the piece by telling the story of an extraordinary summit meeting of food industry leaders, convened in Minneapolis in 1999 by a Pillsbury executive named James Behnke. Among those in attendance were the presidents or CEOs of Kraft, Nabisco, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Mars, and Coca-Cola. 

Behnke called the meeting to discuss the implications for their businesses of the nation's skyrocketing rates of obesity. Health officials and physicians' groups were sounding alarms: Obesity was a health-care catastrophe in the making, especially among children, and the products sold by the men at Behnke's meeting were a major cause of the problem.

Behnke, a chemist with a doctorate in food science, believed it was time the industry addressed the obesity issue, not only because it was threatening to become a public relations liability, but also because the health officials and physician's groups were right: the industry did bear some responsibility for undermining the health of its customers. His feelings were shared by a vice president from Nabisco named Michael Mudd, who presented to the assembled executives an obesity primer, describing with the help of some 114 slides the scale of the epidemic and the threat it posed to the packaged food industry. 
Mudd then offered a series of recommendations. First, he said, the industry should acknowledge that its products were more fattening than they needed to be. Second, the industry should vow to do something about it. He suggested a three-step course of remedial action that began with a program of scientific research to determine what was causing people to eat more than was good for them. Once that was determined, the industry could reformulate its products to reduce their harmful ingredients and devise a nutritional code for its marketing and advertising campaigns.

It would be lovely to report that Mudd's presentation was greeted with a standing ovation and an impassioned, consensual vow to go forth and reform America's packaged foods marketplace for the sake of the people. That didn't happen. According to Moss, the next person to speak was Stephen Sanger, who at the time was leading General Mills to record profits by selling just the sort of fat-, sugar-, and salt-filled products being blamed for the obesity explosion. 
A General Mills success story: a "health food" with twice the sugar per serving as the children's cereal, Lucky Charms

Sanger wanted no part of Mudd's remedial program, or, for that matter, his guilt. General Mills had always acted perfectly responsibly, he said, not only toward its customers but also toward its shareholders. Consumers buy what they like, and they like products that taste good. General Mills was in the business of selling products that satisfy those tastes and had no intention of doing anything else. His competitors, Sanger suggested, should do the same. On that note, Moss reports, the summit meeting ended.

That these captains of industry would proceed, with endless creativity and ambition, to fill the shelves of American supermarkets with mountains of unhealthy, wasteful, dishonest products, knowing the pernicious effects those products would likely have on the well-being of millions of consumers, was the source of my dark thoughts this morning. 

It's hard not to conclude from examples such as these – and there are many others – that in the pursuit of corporate power moral restraint becomes – not always, but often – a  skeuomorph, a decorative element that pretends, for reassurance's sake, to be functional, but really isn't. There's nothing new about greed, of course. The difference is the scale of mendacity advanced technologies put at our disposal, and the ease with which checks on mendacity are discarded. The only justifications required: consumers will buy it and stockholders will profit.

The divorce of technology from morality is a theme that was sounded repeatedly by the philosopher who has most influenced my thinking on matters such as these, Jacques Ellul.

As I've explained elsewhere, Ellul pictured technology as a unified entity that relentlessly and aggressively expands its range of influence. Ellul used the term "technique" to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen as a way of thinking as well as an ensemble of machines and machine systems. Technique includes the methods and strategies that drive those systems, as well as the quantitative mentality that drives those methods and strategies. The invention, production, distribution, and marketing of addictive junk foods are all manifestations of technique. 

Jacques Ellul
The single overriding value of technique, Ellul repeatedly said, is efficiency. Worries about morality are obstacles in the attainment of efficiency, except where the brutality of efficiency's pursuit causes concerns that might produce resistance, and interference. "It is a principle characteristic of technique that it refuses to tolerate moral judgments," Ellul wrote in 1954. "It is absolutely independent of them and eliminates them from its domain." 

Moral "flourishes" remain, he added, but only for the sake of appearances. In reality, "None of that has any more importance than the ruffled sunshade of McCormick's first reaper. When these moral flourishes overly encumber technical progress, they are discarded – more or less speedily, with more or less ceremony, but with determination nonetheless. This is the state we are in today."

At the time of the food summit in Minneapolis, it's clear James Behnke hadn't fully acclimated himself to those conditions. Stephen Sanger apparently had. 

©Doug Hill, 2013

February 18, 2013

Thomas Nagel, Samuel Butler, and the Question of Consciousness

Samuel Butler
(Note: This essay was originally published three days ago on theAtlantic.com. Thanks to Alexis Madrigal and Rebecca Rosen for opening the door.)
We live in an era of scientific triumphalism, when leading researchers in any number of fields claim they are supremely qualified to explain not only how the universe works, but also what it means. Metaphysics, they tell us, can now be considered a subset of physics.

Thus it's not surprising that distinguished hackles would be raised when a spirited counter-attack is launched by a well-known philosopher who contends that scientists
a) have conveniently ignored gaping holes in their understanding of how evolution has shaped the world and 
b) might learn something from the evangelical Christians who promote Intelligent Design.
The philosopher in question is Thomas Nagel, who years ago attracted more than the usual attention accorded philosophy professors with his essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Nagel's new book, Mind and Cosmos, comes with a subtitle that succinctly describes the epistemological chip he's placed on his shoulder, daring scientists to knock it off: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

Nagel's argument is that the mechanics of natural selection can't answer one of the most crucial questions of our existence: how living, reasoning creatures emerged from insensate matter. Although he himself is an atheist, Nagel says he shares the theists' conviction that the appearance of such creatures strongly suggests that the universe has, from the beginning, evolved teleologically, meaning it's moving purposively, toward ever-higher levels of consciousness.

Thomas Nagel
"Each of our lives," he writes, "is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself." In the present intellectual climate, Nagel hastens to add, "such a possibility is unlikely to be taken seriously."

He got that right. Mind and Cosmos has been the subject of a number of high-profile takedowns, earning it top honors in the Guardian's list of Most Despised Science Books of 2012. So vitriolic has been the response that, as Jennifer Schuessler pointed out in the New York Times, even a relatively sympathetic review ran under the headline, "Thomas Nagel is Not Crazy."

My purpose here is not to review the controversy (the Times article includes a generous sampling of links for those interested in such a review), but rather to add some historical context by pointing out the striking parallels between Nagel's arguments and those made more than a century ago by one of my heroes, the great Samuel Butler.

Butler is best known as the author of the fantasy novel Erewhon, published in 1872. Erewhon, in turn, is best known for its extended meditation on the possibility that machines might one day attain consciousness and take over human beings.

The central character in Erewhon, unnamed in the original novel but identified in the sequel as Higgs, is a hiker who becomes lost in the mountains and stumbles upon an isolated civilization called Erewhon ("nowhere" spelled backward, sort of). Higgs learns that, five hundred years before his arrival, the citizens of Erewhon were alerted to the danger of technological revolt and banned the use of anything but the most primitive machines. The rationale behind this decision is spelled out in a manifesto called The Book of the Machines, which serves as a vehicle for Butler's musings on the implications of Darwinism.

The basic argument in The Book of the Machines is that technology is just as subject to the laws of evolution as plants and animals. There had to have been a moment in biological history when matter made the leap from inert to alive. Who's to say that at some point machines won't make the same leap? The speed of technological progress suggests they're already half way there.

The playful, almost absurdist tone of the Book of the Machines made it easy to conclude that Butler was making fun of Darwin - On The Origin of Species had been published 13 years earlier, and remained hugely controversial. Butler denied it. He told Darwin in a letter that he'd intended only to demonstrate, for purposes of his own amusement and that of others, how easily a scientific concept could be distorted by exaggerated analogy.

Those feelings soon changed. Not long after Erewhon appeared Butler began to see what he considered the dark side of Darwin's theory: it portrayed evolution as a wholly mechanical process that removed any spark of creative vitality from the universe. This was directly counter to the views expressed, supposedly as a joke, in The Book of the Machines, which argued that willful intention can be discerned on far lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder than those occupied by human beings.

"Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead," the Book of Machines says.

He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. He sees the light coming from the cellar window and sends his shoots crawling straight thereto; they will crawl along the floor and up the wall and out at the cellar window; if there be a little earth anywhere on the journey he will find it and use it for his own ends.

Thomas Nagel makes the same point in Mind and Cosmos when he contends that "intelligibility" is "latent in the nature of things." The difference is that Nagel means his argument to be taken seriously, whereas Butler, initially at least, did not.

Early in his writing career Butler considered himself a devotee of Darwin; letters he'd written to newspapers defending natural selection were favorably noted by Darwin himself. Apparently, playing with the ideas implicit in Darwin's theory sowed seeds of doubt in Butler's mind that grew into full-fledged dissent. As Butler's biographer, Clara Stillman, put it, "One of the most interesting things about Butler's reaction to Darwinism is the fact that he was already criticizing it subconsciously before he had any conscious quarrel with it."

That quarrel would come to dominate the remainder of Butler's life. A series of books followed in which he relentlessly attacked not only the limitations of Darwinism, but the integrity of Darwin himself. The great man was guilty, Butler believed, of consistently failing to acknowledge the superior contributions to evolutionary theory of his predecessors, among them Buffon, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin, all of whom perceived signs of teleology in evolution.

Charles Darwin

Butler repeatedly argued that Darwinism explained the mechanics of evolution but overlooked its impetus, a point echoed by Nagel. "The appearance of animal consciousness," Nagel writes, "is evidently the result of biological evolution, but this well-supported empirical fact is not yet an explanationit does not provide understanding, or enable us to see why the result was to be expected or how it came about."

Like Nagel, Butler believed purposefulness imbues all of creation. He was not an avowed atheist, as Nagel is, but he did eschew and dismiss conventional notions of deity in favor of what can be described as a scientifically-informed pantheism. There's no need, he wrote, to posit some "quasi-anthropomorphic being who schemed everything out much as a man would do, but on an infinitely vaster scale." Rather, he said,
The proper inference is that there is a low livingness in every atom of matter...It should not be doubted that wherever there is vibration and motion there is life and memory, and that there is vibration and motion at all times in all things.
Clara Stillman points out how neatly these ideas anticipate quantum physics, as well as the physics-inspired philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and others.

Nagel does not extend his musings in Mind and Cosmos to technology. Those issues became less a focus for Butler as well, once he began to take his objections to the biological problems in Darwinism seriously. He would, however, continue to use technological analogies.

Teleology doesn't suggest that the amoeba knew it was going to evolve into a fish, Butler said, any more than the first person who used a tea kettle necessarily envisioned a steam engine. We get from amoeba to fish, or from tea kettle to steam engine, incrementally. Change is driven by an inclination to adapt at each step along the way. "The manufacture of the tool and the manufacture of the living organ prove therefore to be but two species of the same genus, which, though widely differentiated, have descended as it were from one common filament of desire and inventive faculty."

This is another point Nagel precisely shares. "My guiding conviction," he says, "is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature...I believe that the role of consciousness in the survival of organisms is inseparable from intentionality: inseparable from perception, belief, desire, and action, and finally from reason."

Yet another parallel between Nagel and Butler is that both challenged the scientific orthodoxy of their day from positions outside the scientific establishment, and both were considered by members of that establishment unqualified to render an opinion. It may be that the distance between educated amateur and scientific expert has widened since the nineteenth century, but the religious sensitivities Darwinism inflames seem to have remained fairly consistent.

Perhaps the most dramatic shift since Butler wrote has to do with the evolution of technology. If the transhumanists are right, the uprising of the machines is almost upon us. There's still time to ban them, I suppose, although in Erewhon a civil war was necessary to enforce that course of action.


©Doug Hill, 2013