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Society Technology

Why you’re doomed to techno-befuddlement by the time you’re 70

A friend aspires to be as adept at using consumer technology in 30 years – when he’ll be in his late 70s – as he is today.

This will be me and my friend in 30 years’ time. Children will smirk at us before being re-submerged in their entertainment vats.

He believes many older people have been lazy about keeping up with the underlying advances of the past 50 years.

And he argues that because he works in software engineering and makes an effort to understand the principles behind new technology, he will be in a good position to achieve his goal of being able to program his semi-bio-engineered cyborg gardener using mind control as easily as his grandchildren in the year 2054.

I believe he’s missing the point, and we’ve had many debates.

Silver surfer wipeout

We first got onto this topic after my friend expressed frustration with his septuagenarian mother, who was struggling to read her online banking webpage.

She’d had the Internet for years! Why couldn’t she just fill in the boxes and click the right buttons?

Because, I argued, she didn’t grow up with it. It’s not in her bones, or her muscle memory, or the appropriate synaptic connections.

While most older people I know have basically got the hang of parsing webpages by now, it was fascinating watching them try in their early encounters with the Internet.

Very often they’d start reading from the top left. They’d scan right, then return to the left hand side, drop their eyes down a bit, and continue the process.

They were reading the webpage like a book!

Ever wondered why anyone clicked on banner adverts or got confused about content versus text ads in the sidebar?

Now you know.

Reading a webpage like a book is bonkers to my generation.

Most of us grew up with – or at least encountered – video games.

We were taught very young to treat the screen like a plate of tapas to pick and choose from, rather than as a sacred text.

Perhaps even those who missed games (many young girls, in the early days, for instance) were still trained to have a roving eye by the frenetic activity of Saturday morning cartoons, or by the visually didactic offerings of Play School and Sesame Street.

Older people grew up on books, and watched movies at the cinema that were first staged like theatre productions. Their hands were held by the film’s creators through the viewing. Though they couldn’t articulate it, they mostly knew what to expect next (what shot, what reaction shot, what panning shot, and so on).

Whereas we were taught to take what we needed from a screen. Webpages, when they came, were no big leap.

Of course we were also young, inquisitive, and took pleasure in being adaptable – qualities that do seem to wane.

In any event, reading webpages has diddly-squat to do with understanding hypertext or TCP/IP.

Similarly, many of our parents well understood what a video tape was capable of doing.

The reason they struggled to program their VCRs was because they grew up in a world of wooden horses and plastic cars and just one fancy piece of electronics in the corner of the living room that at first they weren’t allowed to touch.

Are you already a luddite?

If you’re in your mid-to-late 40s and you believe your grandkids won’t be helping you with your household appliances in 30 years, ponder the following:

  • Do you spend fewer than 10 hours a day consuming content via a handheld digital device?
  • Do you still own a CD or DVD collection, or even an iTunes library?
  • Do you take a photo of every meal you have in a restaurant and then distribute it on social media?
  • Do you ever answer your front doorbell?
  • Do you take 546 portraits of yourself in front of every cultural landmark you pass, and know which is your good side, the right angle for your chin, and what’s your best filter?
  • Are you innately au fait with the rule of three?
  • When was the last time one of your memes went viral?
  • Do you answer your phone and/or leave voice messages?
  • (You actually have a landline?!)
  • Did you meet your last three partners on dating apps?
  • Has your Facebook account been dormant since 2016?
  • How often do you Snapchat something you’re ashamed of?
  • Do you fall asleep with your iPhone?
  • Can you even imagine sitting in front of adverts on the TV?

Sometimes you should be answering yes, and sometimes no.

Hopefully the questions speak for themselves. Most of us my age are already past it.

And this is just 2010-2020 technology. If you’re under 30 and you’re thinking “sure”, wait until you see what’s coming next…

The future is child’s play

My point is that what defines technological advances, eras, generations – and alienation – is not how the technology works.

It’s what people do with it.

A clue my friend is going to be metaphorically reaching into the befuddled darkness in his old age with the rest of us is he thinks none of the stuff in that list is new, and that it’s mostly stupid.

He doesn’t use Snapchat, he says, because he hasn’t got time, but anyway it’s just text messaging with pictures.

Posting photos of every dinner to Instagram is pointless, narcissistic, and distracting.

And so on.

Yes, perhaps I agree with him – but I would because I’m his age.

Our parents thought Manic Miner was a waste of time, too.

My father – who worked in Information Technology all his life – said I was in too much of a hurry to encourage him to get a home email address. Who was ever going to email him at home?

Whereas young people play with the new technology around them.

It’s not even new technology when you’re young. It’s just the world.

Their play may seem silly at first. But often they’re learning how to navigate the future.

Photographing your dinner seems ridiculous to those of us who made it to 46 without a daily visual record of what we ate.

But we weren’t cultivating multi-faceted media personalities from our pre-teen years with as large a footprint online as off.

I sent my friend a video this morning. It shows kids having fun using their AirPods as covert walkie-talkies in class:

My friend replied as follows:

A typically convoluted and wasteful solution. I’m sure they have great fun doing it, though.

(To get his tone, read his second sentence in the sarcastic voice of Basil Fawlty, rather than with the camaraderie of a Blue Peter presenter.)

His response illustrates why my friend will surely have to call out the droid training man six times before it’s finally packing away the grocery deliveries the way he wants it to.

Or why he’ll be one of the last to order an autonomous car that has a hot tub instead of a driver’s seat.

Or why he’ll never meet a partner on Tinder who will only make love after micro-dosing LSD.

Or why he’ll insist on sending text messages, rather than sharing head-vibes via an embedded emote transmitter-receiver.

Or why he’ll die of a heart attack because he hadn’t tracked his blood via a wearable monitor disguised as a signet ring.

Or whatever actually does come down the road; the challenges of tomorrow’s technology won’t look like those of today.

I don’t mean to make fun of my friend. I applaud his aspiration.

But he has got a solution for a totally different problem.

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Technology

Would you rather be killed by a robot?

Few of us want to die, but we have a greater aversion to going one way than another.

A classic example is air travel. Despite being statistically far safer than driving, many more people are afraid of flying and it is air plane crashes that make the nightly news.

Of course the safety of air travel is what makes a rare calamity headline-worthy. Just another car crash caused by a sleepy, drunk, or texting driver will be lucky to make the local papers.

But there’s also something else going on.

Drivers – and perhaps even passengers – seem to accept their agency in a highway accident in a way that many airplane travellers do not. We feel helpless at 35,000 feet, but we suspend our disbelief. We’re equally helpless at 80mph on the motorway should a lorry jack-knife in front of us, but a few seconds before we felt like we were the kings of the road.

The difficulty in making an all-terrain level 5 autonomous car that’s fit for purpose has curbed the enthusiasm of those of who thought (/hoped!) we were on the edge of a self-driving revolution.

But the squishy calculus that we apply to fatal accidents could hold back a rollout even if sufficiently viable technology comes along.

Do Androids dream of L-plates?

What’s sufficient?

In the US, the National Highway Traffic Administration estimated that 36,750 people were killed in US traffic crashes in 2018.

If the entire fleet had switched over to autonomous vehicles on January 1 2019 and the number of deaths had subsequently dropped by one to 36,749 would it be celebrated as a success?

Unlikely – although the one extra person who lived to read that statistic at the end of the year might disagree.

Even leaving aside the many complicating factors absent from this illustration (noise in the statistical data, unintended effects such as greater alcoholism as everyone could now drink and ‘drive’, an increase in drug use or suicide among newly-unemployed truck drivers) we intuitively know the US public isn’t going to accept 36,749 robot-mediated driving deaths a year.

I don’t think the American public would accept 749 annual fatalities from buggy robot driving.

Perhaps not even 49.

Obviously this makes no logical sense, but there it is.

These questions will only amplify as AI migrates further off the desktop and the cloud and visibly into our daily lives.

  • Would you be happy if a robot lifeguard saved three elderly swimmers in difficulty over your six-year old child?
  • Would you chalk it up to statistically predictable bad luck if an AI screen for breast cancer gave you a false negative, even if you’d stood a lower chance of such an erroneous result than had a friendly-faced radiologist seen the same slide?
  • Should a robot driver head towards a fatal collision with an oncoming out-of-control vehicle, killing several, or instead swerve to crush a baby in a pram?

That last example is regularly trotted out in the insurance industry, where such issues aren’t just interesting after-dinner talking points.

Someone will have to be responsible if someone is going to pay.

But for most of us, the questions are mushier. We recoil at their asking, but the machines need to know what to do.

One option is to avoid AI, even if doing so leads to worse outcomes and perhaps tens of thousands of preventable deaths.

Another is to live in a world where we come to accept the odd random destruction or death from poor or faulty or simply inexplicable AI decisions in the same way ancient people sighed and chalked up heart attacks or plagues as evidence of the whims of capricious gods.

That sounds defeatist. But it’s arguably better than 36,750 Americans dying every year at the hands of human drivers because nobody wants to be killed by a bug.

Categories
Technology

Instagram: On the node

A candid photo exposes the reality behind so many aspirational Instagram photographs set in impossibly beautiful locations:

Norway’s Trolltunga: The Instagram myth
Trolltunga: The reality

CNBC notes:

A decade ago, fewer than 800 people a year traveled to Trolltunga. Next year, that figure’s expected to hit 100,000.

People queue with dozens of others, babbling and checking their phones, to be photographed standing at Trolltunga in meditation.

What’s going on?

The 1990’s interpretation: Cheap air travel and a generation that puts more of a premium on experiences than stuff are seeking out the world’s greatest places.

The 2000’s interpretation: The explosion of information on the Internet and the ubiquity of smartphones has made people more aware of where they can visit and what sort of experiences they should pursue.

The 2019 reality: Instagram has made every place a de facto node on a real-world physical network. Social media influencers and network effects drive superlinear traffic to the most popular nodes, which only increases their subsequent popularity.

Instagram will eat the world

Twenty years ago, the National Geographic could publish a photo of Trolltunga to the fleeting interest of a magazine browser. One or two might add Norway to their holiday lists.

Today’s aspirational Instagram user identifies Trolltunga as a resource. In consuming that resource – by visiting, photographing, and posting – they make a honey trap that attracts 100 more.

Hence the most popular spots are noded and overrun, and this kind of mathematics implies they’ll be impossible within an iteration or two.

Solutions?

  • Restricted access to the most popular nodes (quotas, dollars)
  • A counter-cultural trend towards more obscure nodes (at best a delaying tactic)
  • Simulcra nodes. A fake Grand Canyon. A 3D printed Taj Mahal. Machu Picchu remade for middle-class China to visit by train.
  • The Instagram craze dies down (unlikely)
  • Eventually we all live in the matrix, anyway

Many of these solutions sound phoney.

Are they phonier than the myth of Trolltunga today?