The Diminishing Returns of Managing “Smart” Things

tech manualLike it or not, we are part of an involuntary army of I.T. drudges.  I worry that I am beginning to know how our cable tech in the white panel truck likes his coffee.“

Science writers are constantly reminding us that the days of the robot are quickly approaching, mostly missing the point that “smart” and programmable hardware have been with us for some time.  If a robot can be any kind of machine-based intelligence—anything from computers to smartphones to Fitbits—we are already waist high in the murky waters that must be penetrated to find their ever-elusive maintenance and operational codes. It turns out that keeping all of them running is enormously distracting.

In some ways nothing about modern life seems like more of an intrusion on the important business of living than finding time to master the set-up and maintenance of another device.  A new car now requires hours of learning to understand simple tasks as turning on the heat, turning off the fan, setting up electronic dashboard displays and syncing phones.  Add in the other stuff of everyday life–smart phones, ever-shifting passwords, software upgrades, new information systems to be managed at work–and somewhere along the way it feels like the “smart” things have turned us into their staffs.  “Customer service” now means that we provide the necessary service. As with some Apple products, there can be pleasant surprises, But the elaborate programming sequences for most pieces of digital hardware can be their own unique Circles of Hell, Version 10.0.

We all have stories of computers that don’t recognize us, smart phones that resolutely remain stupid, and bulky wi-fi devices that have choked on a mistakenly capitalized letter in their SSID addresses. We are now in danger expending more energy maintaining connectivity than connecting.

Modern computing offers impressive resources and hundreds of ways to stay in touch, at least in a fashion.  Relatives and friends on separate coasts can Skype.  Uniform URL protocols let us link up at will and from nearly any place on the globe. Children can be observed in their cribs from as near as downstairs or as far as down under.  I’ve grown to like a radio station in Athens, Greece. And when the streaming stars are all aligned, it sounds better than a Clear Channel radio station a mile away.

But I’m also appalled at the hours it takes each month to keep what is our family’s comparatively small number of smart machines working.  It’s not that each gadget comes with its own complete and accessible directions.  Strangely, they do not. We now learn about our products mostly by going online and finding answers to arcane questions we never knew we needed to know.  It used to be the humans enabled each other.  Now we’ve got to decide what features we will “enable” as part of a long checklist to make a router or other device work. The options are often impossible to decode, but we press on, searching for cues out in a labyrinthine programming sequence explained in a language as obscure as Urdu.

Like it or not, we are part of at least an involuntary army of I.T. drudges.  Many of us talk with Comcast, FIOS or other service providers more than our own relatives.  I worry that I am beginning to know how our tech in the white panel truck likes his coffee.

From a communications perspective, all of this enforced hardware and software maintenance robs us of the forms of communication for which we are hardwired. The reason is quite simple. “Smart” machines have operating systems governed by strict rules. The machine and its programming sequences are in charge. We must master alien rules that only allow a one-for-one transfer of meaning.  Make a mistake and most are mute in explaining where we have gone wrong.

By comparison, human communication is dynamic, adaptable, open to innovation, and thrives on non-standard connections made possible by comparison, analogy, and serendipity.  We are made to find work-arounds and alternate means to solve a problem. Where machines have linear routes to their functions (the internet itself is an exception: a true network of networks, a bit like our brains), fluent humans are naturally creative improvisers. Our human birthright is to swim in a deep sea of experiences that can be understood from multiple dimensions.  Even on this website I am bound more by its design codes than my design impulses.

I doubt if any of us at life’s end will wish we’d had more time with the cheerful faux-person at the other end of the Customer Service line who “thinks” only in binaries, as “she” troubleshoots a problem with one of our devices. To be sure the computer with a voice is nominally better than the elevator music that comes on when “she” has to pause to compute.  It turns out to be the perfect representation of our self-induced marginality. We stand by out of obeisance to rigid problem-solving sequences while it trashes an artform that we otherwise cherish as one of the most fragile artifacts of the human world.