Tag Archives: digital devices

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.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu


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Are We Losing Our Kids to Conversational Silence?

Auguste Renoir, The Conversation Wikipedia.org
                      Auguste Renoir, The Conversation

When did the idea of a direct conversation with another become so problematic?

For those of us who study human communication, direct face to face conversation is usually the fundamental model for understanding all other forms. When two or more people are in the same space addressing each other, their exchanges are likely to contain all of the critical yardsticks for measuring successful interaction. These essential processes include awareness of the other, the potential for immediate and unfiltered reciprocity in an exchange, and access to all the visual and verbal feedback that comes with direct person-to-person contact. All other channels of communication—including the devices that extend the range of human connectivity—alter or diminish one or more of one of these processes. And though it may not seem like it, altering or reducing a conversational asset is a big deal.

Until the advent of widespread electric telegraphy in the 1850s direct communication with another in the same space has always anchored human communities. The very idea of a sociology of human relationships is mostly predicated on the expectation that we have direct and real-time access to each other.

Even so, the default model for understanding how we maintain our social nature is increasingly at odds with the ways we now live. What has changed most dramatically are the preferences of younger Americans who are less eager to seek out conversation as a problem-solving tool.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

The most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated and intentionally isolating. We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle notes a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through many essential and unavoidable relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grew up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel. They didn't grow up with a lot of face-to-face talk.

Of course there is always a risk among the old to assume that progress has been overtaken by regression. To paraphrase the Oscar Hammerstein lyric from Oklahoma!, it’s easy to believe that “things have gone about as far as they can go.” Even so, it’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games start with various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity.  But the most consequential of all is a reduced intimacy that happens when humans are not in the same space breathing the same air.