A Faustian Bargain

It used to start with a problem, a problem that needed to be solved. In the 16th century, for example, astronomers had difficulty seeing clearly the planets and stars they were observing. So they invented more powerful telescopes. It sounds simple enough; you are faced with a problem and then you devise a solution.

Now, in the digital age, we have solutions waiting for a problem. What problem was Google Glass (the glasses that put Augmented Reality over your eyes) trying to solve exactly? Google Glass flopped but that didn’t stop Snap (owner of Snapchat) to develop similar glasses. And not to be outdone, Facebook — sorry Meta — partnered with Rayban to put cameras on Wayfarers (with no mention of the Facebook brand, now toxic). So now you can finally solve that most intractable of problems of taking photos without getting tired pulling your phone out of your pocket. Just tap the glasses. And hope nobody thinks you’ve lost your mind.

What problem was crying to be solved by wearables that measure our heartbeat, blood pressure and sleeping patterns? 

Amazon’s robot Astro seems to have been borne from a reflection that started with “how cool would it be…”. It was developed probably by the same team who developed an Alexa-powered ring. You know, the ring where you can speak your Alexa commands to wherever you happen to be. In case the Echo device is, perhaps, downstairs. (Amazon also had a foray into Alexa-powered glasses. There’s something about glasses that seems irresistible).

Steve Jobs once said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. And of course what we want is different from what we need. God preserve us from the things we want. For once we have what we want, it becomes what we need.

Digital technology allows engineers to develop products, because, well, they can. It’s their own Everest, as it were. They follow the adage, “invent them and see what sticks”, figuring they’ll find a use for that solution (product) at some point in time. When I was doing research in the early 80s on speech recognition, I encountered an interesting case study of the 70s. They gave postal workers in a large unheated warehouse a headset with a mic to speak the zip code of the parcel (instead of punching it on a keypad), which then determined on which conveyor belt that parcel would be placed. Wearing gloves in winter increased the error rate, so they figured speech would be an ideal solution. It turned out that it was cheaper and more efficient to heat the warehouse to allow the workers to take off their gloves.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other high tech companies have research labs with the sole purpose of “innovating”. Maybe it is the startup mentality. Tech companies don’t do mundane products. We are dealing with superlatives here. Tech will transform the future of work. Tech will connect humanity. Tech will save the planet. Tech will colonise Mars. We do because we can. And in so doing, we don’t need to show profitability. We only need to wow Venture Capitalists with good stories that grip their imagination. Google’s innovation lab, called simply “X”, is sometimes called the “Moonshot Factory”. Their mission, no less, is to “invent and launch ‘moonshot’ technologies that will someday make the world a better place”. It was there that autonomous cars, internet balloons, delivery drones and contact lenses that measure glucose in tears were built.

In the meantime, who has defined the problem that AI is supposed to solve? What problem drove the development of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality? In our relentless focus on the product, we have lost sight of the problem. Solutions that come before the problem is well defined have a tendency to morph into unintended directions. I joined Twitter in 2008, mainly to tell my friends what I had for breakfast (back then it was using SMS, hence the initial 140 character limitation). If you had told me that in 8 years’ time it would be the stream of consciousness of a sitting US President, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. In fact I’d wager Jack Dorsey (Twitter founder) would have done the same too. Who would have imagined that Facebook (designed to connect college students) would one day be accused of being a nefarious force disrupting democracy?

To be sure, Digital technology has indeed removed barriers and friction from our daily lives and made everything so much more convenient. It radically transformed the way we communicate, socialise, do business, govern, and simply run our daily lives. It has given users unprecedented powers of influence, giving citizens the ability to challenge governments (and employees their employers). It has changed the very concept of a product, with instant gratification now expected not only for all media (books, music and movies) but also for physical goods. Everything is so much easier today.

But it behooves us to stop and ask at what cost did we achieve this? What have we lost in return for all that convenience? 

We are able to communicate easily with friends and family halfway around the world and do this for free using video. (I am old enough to remember as a student having to queue at a phone booth in the UK with loose change in my hands, waiting my turn to talk for about 3 minutes to my parents in Geneva). But in the process are we neglecting the person in front of us? We are inundated with a trove of information that is placed effortlessly at our fingertips, but have we lost knowledge and wisdom within all that data? Can we identify misinformation and distinguish it from disinformation? Have we lost the art of critical thinking?

Much of that data is generated by ourselves as we leave breadcrumbs behind us everywhere we go, whether online or in the physical world. This is our private data that will be sold to the highest bidder, the price to pay to use “free” applications. In so doing, are we losing our privacy and sense of self-control as we are being pulled inexorably to the screen?

By making it easy to measure our vital statistics, have we improved our health or have we become more paranoid? Have we become fixated on the numbers rather than letting them become an outcome of healthy living?

By making it easy to share information on social media, are we contributing to a polarised society? Are we eroding democracy?

We can take hundreds of photographs without worrying about running out of film, seeing the result immediately and re-taking the photograph to our heart’s content. But have we lost our sense of creativity in removing all constraints?

We can listen instantly to our favourite band as soon as we learn about a new album. But as we listen to playlists on shuffle mode, easily skipping tracks as we multitask, are we really listening to the song or just hearing it?

We have the ability to navigate in the physical world without lifting our noses from the screen. But have we lost our sense of direction?

We can call a taxi with a couple of taps on our phone, and follow its progress either to us or to our destination. But have we created a gig economy that penalises workers with precariousness?

By being always connected and “ON”, have we lost our downtime and our ability to let the mind wander and to be in the moment – and even get bored?

All of which makes me wonder, what Faustian bargain have we made? What have we sacrificed on the altar of convenience?

Let us reconsider. I don’t mean to throw away technology, but I find that what’s easy is often not rewarding. So let us add some friction to our digital lives. Add some self-inflicted constraints. The next time you want to write to a friend, pick up your favourite pen and take your time before committing pen to paper. You’ll find the process much more rewarding and thoughtful than an email or a WhatsApp message.

Take a paper map the next time you’re ambling in a new city. You’ll be a lot more aware of your surroundings as you’re obliged to look up and get your bearings. And if you know someone with a vinyl record player, pick an album, admire the album art, place the record on the turntable and gently place the needle on the first track. Then sit down and enjoy the music, without shuffle play or skipping tracks.

Pick up a film camera, insert a film of 36 exposures and go out photographing. You’ll need to think twice before shooting as you can run out of film very quickly. And you’ll learn the rewards of delayed gratification as you wait for the film to be developed.

Check the default settings of your applications and internet browsers and ensure that you preserve your privacy. That weather app can give you the forecast of where you are as it tracks your location. But switch off location tracking and enter the city manually. It may take a little more effort, but the rewards are huge. Even better, pay for your apps and become the customer rather than the product.

And in the meantime, to developers and technologists everywhere I urge them to heed Albert Einstein’s advice, who once said, “if I had 20 days to solve a problem, I’d spend 19 defining it”.

Amen.

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