Essays on Technology and Culture

Things I Don’t Get

I sit on the side of the vast swimming pool of technology, my ankles in the water, suntan lotion covering what a bathing suit does not. I like to watch the people come and go, but sometimes I’ll dive in to a part of the pool that seems appealing. Those parts are rare, however, at least from my vantage point. I’m suspicious whenever I see a crowd, even if a part of my brain is wondering if they know something I don’t.

I can overcome this skepticism, at times. I was heavily skeptical of smartwatches until I decided to try a Pebble on a self-imposed dare. Now, I’m a smartwatch convert, even as more than a few Apple Watch early-adopters have given up on the platform. But right now, the big things I see my fellow tech people gushing over leave me wanting. It’s not that I don’t see potential or utility in any of these, but that I don’t see enough. For some of these technologies, all I can see is downside. Best to go through the list.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is big again. It’s been a technology that has been just on the cusp of bring the Next Big Thing for over two decades, but now, they seem to have cracked it. I’ve not tried the Oculus Rift—I don’t have that kind of money, or a desire to own a Windows PC—but I’ve played with a Samsung Gear VR. It’s come a long way from the giant, heavy, clunky helmets I used to play Duke Nukem 3D at an amusement park in 1996. On a purely technical level, it’s safe to say that Virtual Reality has arrived.

But, so far, all I’ve seen VR used for is really neat tech demos and video games. I have yet to see any great applications that take advantage of Virtual Reality to do anything more groundbreaking than the aforementioned Duke Nukem 3D VR deathmatch from 20 years ago. There’s nothing wrong with a technology that exists purely for entertainment, but that doesn’t match up with the sheer hype I keep hearing. Did Facebook really buy Oculus to make video games, or something more?

I’m skeptical of VR, because I don’t see many uses for it outside of entertainment. Some suggest it would be a great tool for engineers, and that’s reasonable. If you’re building a structure, the ability to explore it in VR is a potential boon, but is it better than a rendered walk through on a computer screen? I’m not sure. Even if VR makes inroads in business, what does it do for the home user, outside of entertainment? VR FaceTime? Second Life has its niche of users, but if VR is the next big thing, it’ll have to find some appeal to millions of people who don’t want to play video games, or pretend to be six-foot tall walking genitalia in cyberspace.

Smart Homes and the Internet of Things

The Smart Home is another idea that has been on the cusp for the last several decades. It was the subject of a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1947, for crying out loud. Omnipresent wireless connectivity has made it easier and more functional, but it still seems like a fragile, technology demo to me. Why do I need to turn out the lights from my smartphone when I can just stand up and walk ten steps to the switch? Why does my washing machine need to send me a text message when it’s done a cycle, when I can just set a timer on my phone? What do I do with all my smart home gadgets when I move?

And that’s before you factor in the security holes, or the very real possibility that the company you bought your home automation gear from might brick your device for no good reason. There’s a chance that the security stuff will get ironed out in time. The utility factor, not so much.

Self-Driving Cars

I remain skeptical of self-driving cars, not because I don’t think the technology will work, but because I feel they’re solving the wrong problem. The promoters of self-driving cars saw the existing urban and suburban infrastructure—often the sprawling road and highway focused infrastructure of the West Coast—and have tailored a solution optimized for it. It’s a clever hack, repurposing existing infrastructure for a new kind of networked transportation model, but it is still a hack.

On the East Coast, or at least the Northeastern Megalopolis where I live, there’s less—but not zero—road and highway sprawl. Jobs and homes are more centralized, and we have existing, high-efficiency, high-capacity transit systems to ferry us most of the way between. We’re better suited, I think, to mass transit. Self-driving cars may kill traffic jams dead, but in doing so might aggravate suburban sprawl—the last thing we need.

Self-driving car technology could be a huge boon outside of personal, private transportation, but I’ve yet to see anyone talking about using self-driving trucks to carry goods instead of using long-haul truckers. According to the Organisation For Economic Co-Operation And Development, “trucking is by far the most harmful mode of goods transport.” We’re hauling a lot of goods around the United States by truck. Where’s Elon Musk with the Tesla Self-Driving Tractor-Trailer?

AI and Bots

Color me skeptical of the coming AI revolution too. Microsoft’s first go with their Tay AI turned into racist cluster-expletive, and there’s no indication they’ve learned much from the experience. Caroline Sinders breaks down the problems, not just for Microsoft, but for any company who wants to be in this space. Besides, what we’re calling AI these days are really just complex algorithms with some natural language processing to get the inputs right.

I’m not worried about HAL 9000 locking me out of my apartment. I’m worried about more subtle algorithmic horrors. Many algorithms are picking up the unconscious—and conscious—biases of their creators. The results can even be a threat to national security. If the goal of Artificial Intelligence is to create systems that surpass human flaws and foibles, we’ve got an uphill climb at a slope of about 98º right now.

So What Do I Care About?

There’s lot of cool and exciting stuff happening. Electric cars excite me, even if I’m not likely to own one—dense urban dweller that I am. Social media has its problems, but the power of getting the world to communicate together is still incredible to me. I’m amazed at what we can do with more and cheaper sensors, though I worry who has access to that data. I swear that, one day, the context-aware computing future will finally come to pass. Medical science continues to astound me, and if people can get over their irrational fear of genetically modified foods, we could accomplish literal miracles.

But I don’t hear much about those. I’m trying to be less of a pessimist, and assume that when there’s smoke around something, there’s fire. For some of these ideas that are the next big thing coming around again (VR, Smart Homes), I can’t help but be skeptical. We’ve done this dance before. Maybe there’s a real value to all of this, but it’s escaping me. None of the gushing technology press has made the case, let alone the PR departments of the companies promoting the technology.

Maybe it’s me. I don’t want to be the pessimist, stuck in his dumb home staring into rectangles, and typing his queries into a search engine, and taking the train to visit his parents like an animal while the rest of the world lives the Star Trek future. If the rest of the world is seeing something I’m not, I just wish they’d communicate it better.