Not So Fast (book review)

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Not So Fast: Thinking Twice about Technology. By Doug Hill. Univ. of Georgia Press, Oct. 15, 2016, 240 pp.

In 2014, I had the good fortune of meeting Doug Hill in the flesh at the first IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century (http://21stcenturywiener.org/). It was one of the highlights of the conference for me. I was attracted to Doug because of his outward simplicity but at the same time deep inner profundity. It did not take long for us to get talking of our mutual interests. For instance, we've both been influenced greatly by the French philosopher, sociologist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul [1], popularly known for The Technological Society (1964) [2], [3]. Hill is an investigative journalist by training, an award winning writer [4], with a specialization on the philosophy of technology.

In Not So Fast, Hill wastes no time in getting his point across. Chapter 1 opens: “Let me begin by stating the obvious: We live in an era of technological enthusiasm.” In his book, Hill attempts the impossible and pulls it off. He hits us with the hard facts, one after the other. And we can either take his word for it, or refute him page after page, until we realize, that the evidence is overwhelmingly stacked against us. In effect, Hill tells us “where we are at” with all this techno-deluge, even if we don't wish to admit it. He makes a point of highlighting the technological utopianism we have begun to believe and dream about, only to bring us down crashing the very next moment with the startling realities.

“Lively, fast moving, always entertaining,’Not So Fas’ offers a grand overview of the extravagant hopes and dire warnings that accompany the arrival of powerful new technologies. Blending the key ideas of classic and contemporary thinkers, Doug Hill explores the aspirations of those who strive for the heavens of artifice and those who find the whole enterprise a fool’s errand. This is the most engaging, readable work on the great debates in technology criticism now available and a solid contribution to that crucial yet unsettling tradition.”

—Langdon Winner, author of Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought; Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The book contains quotes from people we all look up to in the tech and business world, representing thousands of hours of research to craftily support the central thesis: “not so fast.” Hill proclaims in no uncertain words, that we have lost control over the very creations we have built to make life better for us. Somewhere along the way we have become emotionally attached to our technologies; rather than being extensions of us, it seems we have become extensions of them.

But for Hill. it's not all about the bling, and high-tech gadgetry. For Hill, it is more than being enslaved into a life of upgrades, although he does question the practices of Silicon Valley - the preoccupation of building the ultimate immortal man who can live forever through AI and some sort of fantastical Singularity [5], [6]. Hill doesn't just stop there. He looks for the underlying causes to why our climate has changed so detrimentally, the very processes that didn't begin with the introduction of smartphones or social media, but of events from hundreds of years ago. Indirectly, Hill entices the reader to scratch beneath the surface and think about the “how” and “why.”

In a somewhat prophetic voice, Hill arrives at the conclusion that if we are going to reverse things that we might as well begin now. What he's really talking about is the mystery of technology. Hill doesn't shun its value but he declares that we have to put it in its place, before it puts us in a place of no return. His is a voice of one crying in the wilderness, but he is not alone. The reader, no sooner reads a few more of Hill's chapters, and finds herself admitting what she's always known: “Technology doesn't always mean progress. In fact, sometimes it has some very ugly intended and unintended consequences.” In short, we gotta be alert and awake. But even more than that!

Hill digs deep and unravels the inherent qualities of technology, and proceeds to make us aware of the happenings around us [7]. Readers will be all the more enlightened to learn about some of Hill's conclusions, through practical examples in everyday life:

  1. The technological imperative. “Our entire way of life - the social fabric in which we live - is utterly, completely dependent on technology,” says Hill. “To free ourselves of that dependence would be so disruptive that economic and social chaos would result.”

  2. Technological momentum. “There's a simpler reason technologies become intractable: it's too hard to change them. We're stuck with the infrastructure we have,” Hill says. “For example, it's not easy to replace a city's sewer system from scratch.”

  3. Convergence and diffusion. “Technologies are communicable; they spread like viruses. They converge with other technologies and diffuse into unexpected areas,” says Hill. “Bronze casting methods first used to make church bells were soon used to make canons, for example. Today automation techniques - robots - are diffusing daily into ever-more industries and applications, from assembly of everything from cars and smartphones to the handling of banking transactions.”

  4. Speed. “Regulation is slow; technologies are fast,” says Hill. “So it is that governments are frequently unable to effectively control technological development. Hundreds of companies today are feverishly working to exploit the commercial potential of nanotechnology and synthetic biology, for example, despite the fact that no one is certain either technology is safe.”

 

“This is the technology criticism I’ve been waiting for - aware of the history of technology criticism and the history of changing attitudes toward technology, and at the same time attuned to contemporary developments. Not So Fast is readable, meticulously sourced, and, above all - nuanced. I recommend it for technology critics and enthusiasts alike.”

—Howard Rheingold, Internet pioneer and author of Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs, and “Net Smart”

In his conclusion, Hill isn't very optimistic about where we are at and he certainly doesn't give us any tangible or pragmatic ways to combat the predicament that society finds itself in. And yet, perhaps that has left the door open to a sequel, possibly about a resurgence in technology assessment, about the importance of resistance, and breaking with the belief that technology can do no evil.

Is the path we are on, really that irreversible? Are we headed down a road of inevitabilities, locked-in on auto-pilot? Or are there strategies we might be able to employ right now, as interlinked local communities that make up a collective global consciousness? We have the power, are we willing participants? How much do we care about the future to get involved?

Hill warns: “There's more to turning off machines than hitting a switch… We are deeply, intimately tied to our technologies, in all sorts of practical and emotional ways. To give them up would be literally life-threatening. That's why many experts believe our technologies have become'autonomous.’”

I give this book 5 stars not only because it is masterfully written - the reader feels like they have known Hill for years, a faint voice in the back of their head reaffirming truisms - but because it reveals socio-technical patterns and trends happening all round us. Hill also makes observations about things that others would at best say to leave alone.

“Doug Hill’s insights into technology are both original and profound. I’ve travelled in the highest reaches of the tech world for more than twenty years, and I still learned much from this book. He will be recognized as a leading thinker on technology and its impact on our world. In an industry that too seldom stops to think through the implications of the products we produce, his is a voice we need to hear.”

—Allen Noren, vice president of online, O’Reilly Media

It's time for those brave conversations, about technology in our homes and our schools, about technology in our industrial and military sectors, about what we should be pooling our resources into to ensure environmental sustainability, and about what should be better left alone. Whether hype or hope, we've embraced a pseudo-truth, that our human salvation will come from technology, abandoning myths 2000 years old.

And while Hill does not make reference to this specifically, I think we are unashamedly worshipping at the foot of technology, believing this will be our ultimate destiny, our chance to live forever on earth. And yet, our sensibilities should tell us that eternal life on earth, would be not unlike living in an endless loop, and as spiritual beings, get us nowhere. I return back to those fundamental human principles, are we bettering ourselves, our nature, because we are surrounded by so much technology, or are we just becoming less able to discern the good from the bad, the useful from the useless. And who or what is behind that wheel driving us to our destinies? It's time to get back in control.

Citation: Katina Michael, 2017, Book Review on Doug Hill's "Not So Fast", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 36(2), pp. 24-26.

Beyond Human: Lifelogging and Life Extension

I have often wondered what it would be like to rid myself of a keyboard for data entry, and a computer screen for display. Some of my greatest moments of reflection are when I am in the car driving long distances, cooking in my kitchen, watching the kids play at the park, waiting for a doctor's appointment, or on a plane thousands of meters above sea level. I have always been great at multitasking, but at these times it is often not practical or convenient to be head down typing on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

It would be much easier if I could just make a mental note to record an idea and have it recorded, there and then. And who wouldn't want the ability to “jack into” all the world's knowledge sources in an instant via a network [1]? Who wouldn't want instant access to their life-pages filled with all those memorable occasions? Or even the ability to slow down the process of aging [2], as long as living longer equated to living with mind and body fully intact.

Transhumanists would have us believe that these things are not only possible but inevitable.

In short: we Homo sapiens may dictate the next stage of our evolution through our use of technology.

Transhumanism

Shortly after starting my Ph.D., I came across a newly established organization known as the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), now known as Humanity+ (H+), which was founded by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce.

Point 8 of the Transhumanist Declaration states [3]:

“We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.”

First let us consider briefly the traditional notion of a cyborg, part man/part machine, where technology can act to replace the need for human parts.

Steve Mann: “Here's a picture I took of my neckworn camera in 1998, along with other similar more recent devices. The 1998 camera was a “wearable wireless webcam” that had various other sensors in it as well. The microsoft sensecam picture I took in a similar style, and over the years various other products became available. The most recent picture I actually took in exactly the same location as my original camera necklace dome 15 years earlier: 2nd floor of university of toronto bookstore, St. george street entrance.

Steve Mann: “Here's a picture I took of my neckworn camera in 1998, along with other similar more recent devices. The 1998 camera was a “wearable wireless webcam” that had various other sensors in it as well. The microsoft sensecam picture I took in a similar style, and over the years various other products became available. The most recent picture I actually took in exactly the same location as my original camera necklace dome 15 years earlier: 2nd floor of university of toronto bookstore, St. george street entrance.

In this instance, some might willingly undergo surgical amputations for reasons of enhancement and longevity which have naught to do with imminent medical prosthesis.

This might include the ability to get around the “wetware” of the brain, enabling our minds to be downloaded onto supercomputers.

Homo Electricus

Perhaps those who love the look and feel of their human body more than machinery would much rather contemplate a world dominated by a Homo Electricus – a human that will use electro-magnetic techniques for ambient communication with networks [4].

An Electrophorus is thus one who becomes a bearer of technology, inviting nano-and micro-scale devices into his or her body.

An Electrophorus might also use brain-wave techniques, such as the electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the electrical activity of the brain in order to perform actions by thinking about them [5].

This might be the best approach to retaining our inner thoughts for recollection though there are myriad vital issues related to security, access control, and privacy that must be addressed first.

Lifelogging

Twenty years ago, when I was still in high school, I would observe my headmaster, who was not all that fond of computers, walking around the playground carrying a tiny Dictaphone in his hands recording things for himself so that he could recollect them afterwards.

When I once asked him why he was engaging in this act, he said:

“Ah … there are so many things to remember! Unless I record them I forget them.”

He was surely onto something. His job required him to remember minute details that necessitated recollection.

Enter Steve Mann in the early 1990s, enrolled in a Ph.D. program at M.I.T. Media Labs and embarking on a project to record his whole life – himself, everyone else, and mostly everything in his field of view, 24/7 [6].

At the time it would have sounded ludicrous to want to record your “whole life,” as Professor Mann puts it. With Mann's wearcam devices (such as Eyetap), one can walk around recording, exactly like a mobile CCTV. The wearer becomes the photoborg.

It is an act Mann has called “sousveillance,” which equates to “watching from below” [7].

This is as opposed to watching from above, like when we are surveilled by CCTV stuck on a building wall such as in George Orwell's dystopic Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Since Mann's endeavor there have been many who have chosen this kind of blackbox recorder lifestyle, and more recently even Google has thrown in their Glass Project equivalent [8].

My guess is that we are about to walk into an era of Person View systems that will show things on ground level through the eyes of our social network, beyond just Street View fly-throughs [9].

Other notable lifeloggers include Gordon Bell of Microsoft [10] and Cathal Gurrin from Dublin City University [11].

M.I.T. researcher Deb Roy lifelogged his son's first year of life (with exceptions) by wiring up his home with video cameras [12].

When we talk about big data, you can't get any bigger than this [13] – chunky multimedia, chunky files of all types from a multitude of sensors, and chunky data ripe for analysis (by police, the government, your boss, and potentially anyone).

But I have often wondered where these individuals have drawn the line – at which occasions they choose to “switch off” the camera, and why [14].

This glogging still does not satisfy the possibility that I might be able to retain and indeed download all my thoughts for retrieval later [15].

A series of still photographs and continuous footage does help me to remember people I've met, things I've shared, knowledge I've gained, and feelings I've experienced. However, lifelogging is limited and cannot record the thoughts I have had at every moment in my life.

In addition, there is an innate problem with recording all my thoughts automatically with some kind of futuristic digital neural network: I would not want every thought I have ever had to be recorded [16].

Let's face it, no-one is perfect and sometimes we think silly things that we would never want stored, shared with others or replayed back to us [17].

These are thoughts which are apt to be misconstrued or misinterpreted, even perhaps in an e-court. We also do and say things at times which may not be criminal but are not the best practice for family, friends, colleagues, or even strangers to witness.

And there are those moments of heartbreak and horror alike that we would never wish to replay for reasons we might be overcome with grief and become chronically depressed.

The beginning and end of Ingmar Bergman's film Persona is reminiscent of a longitudinal glog [18]. See also “The Entire History of You” in the Black Mirror [16] available for download at https://archive.org/details/BlackMirror-Series. Directed by Brian Welsh and written by Jesse Armstrong and Charlie Brooker, the movie depicts the future, thanks to the “Grain,” a chip which can be implanted on a hard drive in the brain, with every single action that a person makes being recorded and played back at a later time.

Is More than Human Better?

Evolving in ways that could better our lives can only be a good thing. But evolving to a stage where we humans become something other than human could be less desirable.

Dangers could include:

  • electronic viruses,

  • virtual crimes (such as getting your e-life deleted, rewritten, rebooted, or stolen),

  • having your freedom and autonomy hijacked because you are at the mercy of so called smart grids.

Whatever the likelihood of these potentialities, they too, together with all of the positives, need to be interrogated.

Ultimately we need to be extremely careful that any artificial intelligence we invite into our bodies does not submerge the human consciousness and, in doing so, rule over it.

Remember, in Mary Shelley's 1816 novel Frankenstein, it is Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist, who emerges as the true monster, not the giant who wreaks havoc when he is rejected.

References

1. W. Gibson, Neuromancer, Ace, 1984.
2. A. de Grey, "A roadmap to end aging", TED, 2007, [online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iYpxRXlboQ/.
3. "Transhumanist Declaration", humanity, 2012, [online] Available: http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/.
4. K. Michael, M.G. Michael, "Homo Electricus and the continued speciation of humans" in The Encyclopaedia of Information Ethics and Security, IGI Global, pp. 312-318, 2007.
5. K.D. Stephan, K. Michael, M.G. Michael, L. Jacob, E. Anesta, "Social Implications of Technology: Past Present and Future", Proc. IEEE, vol. 100, no. 13, pp. 1752-1781, 2012.
6. S. Mann, D. RikkeFriis, , "Wearable computing" in The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, Interaction Design Foundation, 2013.
7. S. Mann, "Through the glass lightly", IEEE Technology & Society Mag., vol. 2, pp. 10-14, 2012.
8. "Project Glass: One day…", Google, 2012, [online] Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c6W4CCU9M4/.
9. Map My Tracks, 2010, [online] Available: http://www.mapmytracks.com/blog/entry/new-feature-street-view-and-google-earth-fly-through-bring-your-activities-to-life/.
10. G. Bell, Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, 2013, [online] Available: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/gbell/.
11. C. Gurrin, Lecturer at Dublin City University, 2013, [online] Available: http://www.computing.dcu.ie/~cgurrin/.
12. D. Roy, "The birth of a word", TED, [online] Available: http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word.
13. K. Michael, K. Miller, "Big data: New opportunities and new challenges", IEEE Computer, vol. 46, no. 6, pp. 22-24, 2013.
14. K. Michael, M.G. Michael, "No limits to watching?", Commun. ACM, vol. 56, no. 11, pp. 26-28, 2013.
15. S. Mann, "MetaSpaceglasses now available to CYBORGloggers interested in becoming AR developers", glogger.mobi, [online] Available: http://glogger.mobi/.
16. C. Brooker, "Episode 3 - The entire history of you", Black Mirror, 2011, [online] Available: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/black-mirror/4od#3327868.
17. M.G. Michael, K. Michael, "The fallout from emerging technologies: On matters of surveillance social networks and suicide", IEEE Technology and Society Mag., vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 13-17, 2011.
18. I. Bergman, Persona, 1966, [online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMfqSuRlerU.
19. Inside cover art Frankenstein, 1831, [online] Available: http://www.archive.org/details/ghostseer01schiuoft.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

“The author would like to thank her fellow collaborator Dr. MG Michael, an honorary associate professor at the University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia, for his insights and valuable input on the initial draft of this article.

This article was first published under the title “People plus: Is transhumanism the next stage in our evolution?” in The Conversation, Oct. 29, 2012. The original article can be found at https://theconversation.com/people-plus-is-transhumanism-the-next-stage-in-our-evolution-9771.

IEEE Keywords: Transhuman, Social implications of technology, Electromagnetic devices, Human factors

Citation: Katina Michael, "Beyond Human: Lifelogging and Life Extension", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2014, pp. 4-6.