Reader Petter S sent along a recent article The Myth of Convenience, by L.M. Sacasas, Director of the Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology. The piece covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space, so I encourage you to read it in full, along with his earlier post, Privacy Is Not Dying, We’re Killing It.
The point of departure for Sacasas’ post on convenience was an essay by Colin Horgan, The Tyranny of Convenience. As you’ll see soon enough, Sacasas starts with familiar material and takes it in some unexpected but important directions.
Hogan, who provided the grist for the Sacasaa post, with well-warranted ire at the notion that JetBlue was using facial recognition, as described here:
I just boarded an international @JetBlue flight. Instead of scanning my boarding pass or handing over my passport, I looked into a camera before being allowed down the jet bridge. Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me? Did I consent to this?
— MacKenzie Fegan (@mackenzief) April 17, 2019
He continues with other examples of “Are we sure we are really net positive from technology?”
In the ongoing and growing opposition to the seemingly dystopian world technology companies are building, convenience is often overlooked. But it’s convenience, and the way convenience is currently created by tech companies and accepted by most of us, that is key to why we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want….
Convenience is signing up to a social media platform to keep in touch with friends and family and keep abreast of current events, and then discovering that the personal information you’ve been required to upload to enable your account has been used to micro-target you with disinformation.
Convenience is buying a digital assistant for your home to make hands-free information searches easier, and later finding out that employees of the company that makes it are able to listen to the commands you’ve been giving it — or that its recordings of the ambient sounds of your home have been mailed to someone you don’t know…,
Convenience is downloading a weather app to check whether you need to pack an umbrella, only to later realize that the app’s code makes it easy for someone to track your movements with such specificity that no amount of anonymization of the data would hide that it was you entering a Planned Parenthood, or riding along with the mayor of New York City…
Convenience is driving a car for a ride-hail company because it promises flexible hours, only to find yourself making less than minimum wage and subject to phantom price surge promises, the absolutism of personal star ratings, and constant surveillance, including messages that prompt you to get back to driving like a notification that your phone is unmounted.
Putting the Uber/Lyft driver case aside, which is more a case of misleading marketing, I find it hard to understand the appeal of these supposed conveniences. But some people who may not find the use cases all that useful if they thought about it are also swept along by social and institutional pressure. A lot of schools use Facebook to organize extracurricular activities, like sports teams. I wonder how many people got the Amazon Echo just to show their friends they were cool when it was still novel to have one.
And I don’t mean to sound critical of MacKenzie Fegan, but if she was that bothered by having to stare into a camera, why didn’t she say something then? Unless she was the very first in line (unlikely; pre-boarding types go first), she would have seen other people getting their mugs shot. You can opt out of the body-scanning machines. It looks as if what social psychologists call “group assent” (where people go along with something because those around them signal that it is OK) or fear of making a ruckus at a check point either desensitized or cowed her.1
But let us return to the bigger theme, that of the supposed convenience advantage of technology. Overwhelmingly, the recent debate over technology is over the loss of privacy, as in giving up our data is the price of getting things that make our lives more “convenient”. But even that premise isn’t questioned that often, when the “convenience” benefit too often fails to materialize.
Technology allow advertisers to hound you with ads on flat screens in ride share vehicles and taxis. It’s made voting less secure and at least from what I can tell in NYC, no faster (plus those old fashioned voting machine with the toggles were fun). Lambert describes how in one supposedly very tech savvy Asian city, they’ve installed pay by phone for their metro system….and it’s way slower than using coins.
But despite the existence of counterexamples and tradeoffs….what exactly is this convenience supposed to be buying for us? Sacasas defines it as saving time. But how are we using that supposedly freed up time? Where does that minute someone saves by not printing out and retrieving a paper boarding pass, or say the ten minutes a day regained by being able to process e-mail while on hold with ahealth insurer go? I must have missed it, but I don’t see a lot of stories about how someone was able to write a great novel, or even have more time to hang out with friends, walk in a park, or meditate, as a result of time freed by technology. Engagement with Internet=based technology seems to lead many, maybe most people to reinvest that liberated time back in the Internet. This may not just be the result of all of the dopamine-inducing tricks apps designer rely upon. There’s also an element of intertia. You are sitting at a computer or staring at your mobile screen. The path of least resistance is to do more of the same. 2
And a pernicious side of technology is the way it hasn’t freed up workers but almost entirely used to whip them harder. Employees do tasks that were once handled by a secretary, on top of job duties that have become more time compressed. Technology at work has served much more to increase output requirements than liberate workers, with Amazon-warehouse-worker monitoring a visible example. But even as of the early 2000s, senior managers, meaning a level or two below the C-suite in big companies, were being asked to do what was recently a job and a half or two job. And that’s before you get to the rise of “on call” expectations for a lot of salaried white collar work.
Sacasas looks at different issues coming from convenience as time-saving:
Horgan’s piece recalled to mind Thomas Tierney’s The Value of Convenience: A Genealogy of Technical Culture…..
Tierney explains early on that there are two basic questions he is asking: “First, what is the value of technology to modern individuals? And second, why do they hold this value in such high esteem that, even when faced with technological dangers and dilemmas, they hope for solutions that will enable them to maintain and develop technical culture?”…
Regarding the nature of convenience, Tierney sees in the modern value a reimagining of the body’s needs as limits to be overcome….
Following a discussion of necessity in the context of the ancient Greek household, Tierney insists that modern necessity, just as much as ancient necessity, “is based upon the body.” However, modern attitudes towards the body differ from those of the ancient Greeks: “While the Greeks thought that the satisfaction of bodily demands required careful attention and planning throughout the household, modernity treats the body instead as the source of limits and barriers imposed upon persons. What these limits require is not planning and attention, but the consumption of various technological devices that allow people to avoid or overcome such limits.”
At points citing the work of Paul Virilio, Tierney adds a critical temporal dimension to this distinction. The demands of the body are seen “as inconveniences in that they limit or interfere with the use of time.” Technology is valuable precisely as it appears to mitigate these inconveniences. “Time-saving,” as is well known, has long been a selling point for modern household technologies.
“The need for speed,” Tierney continues, “both in conveyance and in people’s ability to satisfy the demands of the body, is a hallmark of modern necessity.” But this is a paradoxical desire: “Unlike purely spatial limits, as soon as a speed limit is overcome, another limit is simultaneously established. The need to do things and get places as quickly as possible is a need that can never be satisfied. Every advance imposes a new obstacle and creates the need for a more refined or a new form of technology.”..
There’s something rather pernicious about this. It seems clear that despite the continual adoption of technologies that promise to save time or make things more convenient, we do not, in fact, feel as if we have more time at all.
There’s a lot more meaty material that I’ve skipped over, but here is the connection to death:
The domination of nature, according to Tierney, “has been the value which guides the cutting edge of technology; it is the value pursued by the leaders of technological progress, the scientists and technicians.” Convenience, however, “is the value of the masses, of those who consume the products of technical culture.”
Tierney acknowledges that dominating nature is often a way to dominate other men. That takes us to:
In Tierney’s understanding, “the consumption of convenience in modernity reflects a certain contempt for the body and the limits it imposes.” This, in his view, lends to convenience a discernible ascetic quality. “[T]he fetishistic attitudes toward technology and the rampant consumption of ‘conveniences’ which characterize modernity are a form of asceticism,” Tierney explains.
Body monitors? Check. Bio-hacking? Check. Prizing of fasting and extreme exercise regimes? Check. Back to the post:
Ultimately, of course, the apotheosis of this strand of body-denying asceticism lies in the aspirations of the posthumanists, so many of whom demonstrate a not even thinly veiled contempt for our bodily limits and whose eschatological visions often entail a radical re-configuration of our bodies or else a laying aside of them altogether. What this entails, of course, is a radical reimagining of death itself as a limit to be overcome.
This line of thinking shows a lack of imagination, or even reading, among the adherents to various “connect your brain to a machine” or “hack your mind into a computer.” A staple of cheesy 1950s movies is disembodied brains trying to get themselves housed in new bodies but I suppose if that were possible, the squillionaire class would not have compunctions as to where those bodies come from (even assuming those brains can be kept dementia-free).
And as for the idea of transferring “yourself” into a machine, I guess none of these folks got to or past Dune. In one of the later books in the series, a central character is a “ghola” of one of the characters in the original book, Duncan Idaho. From Wikipedia:
Similar to clones, they are “manufactured” human duplicates grown in an axlotl tank from cells collected from a deceased subject. A true ghola is initially shown to be the resurrection of a corpse through regrowth of damaged tissues, while later gholas in the series are more accurately described as clones—grown from genetic material extracted from a few cells (e.g. a small scraping of skin taken moments before death). Through specific stresses, gholas can be made to recall the memories of the original, including their moment of death.
The Duncan Idaho ghola grapples with the fact that even though he has (or thinks he has) all the memories of Duncan Idaho, he is not Duncan Idaho but started living cognitively only when he emerged from the axlotl tank. It shows a bizarre lack of clear-headed thinking that being able to create a machine that replicates their personalities and memories isn’t at all the same as transferring their consciousness to it. Dead is dead and a clone is a clone.
I’ve given only a superficial treatment of the issues raised in these pieces; I hope readers have the time to take up some of the other threads in comments. One of the few upsides of the RussiaRussia scare is that it’s led the press and the public to question computer security and their loss of privacy. Too bad it’s happening so late in the game that it’s hard to see anything but marginal changes being made.
1 Yours truly has gotten very stoopy with TSA screening people and lived to make my flight on time. And they didn’t do anything worse than what they were already up to The most memorable instance was when they hand searching all my bags with no justification, including not even being selected randomly. They didn’t like a jacket, which had been through 20+ airport screenings already and was not in any bag. And a pet peeve is in Japan or even in Europe, when they hand search your bag, they repack it at least as well as you packed it, while the TSA types make a mess of things. If you packed it surgically to get a lot of stuff in or to prevent things from being wrinkled, you’ll have to go redo your entire bag to get it back to where it was.
2 I have to confess that my most common short-form mental health break is looking at non-news-related YouTube videos.