"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Hidden Mind Of The Machine

Most of us take our appliances for granted.  They either work or they don’t.  We are more concerned with reliability and performance than anything else.  We value toasters, microwaves, coffee makers, and blenders for their long, trouble-free life.  The last thing we want to do is to be on the phone to a call center in India and be asked to take apart our new vacuum cleaner, only to be told after an hour that it has to be returned for repair.

The last time I did this was with a beautiful new Dyson’s vacuum cleaner.

I bought it because it looked cool, and it really does suck well; but a few weeks later it stopped working.  The Dyson’s people in Manila were lovely.  Binky walked me through a few basic dummy items (Was it plugged in? Was the cord attached?), then proceeded through more complicated diagnostics until she concluded we would have to dismantle the unit and get to the principal sucking mechanism.  “I am not at all mechanical”, I told her.  “Are you sure we have to do this?”.  She responded that she would be there for me, and not to worry.

A half hour later all the parts of the Dyson’s were all over the floor. There was no way of knowing if the machine was fixed because right now it was a yard sale of spare parts.  She walked me through hose attachments, toggle switches, nozzles, and intake manifolds until the machine was back together again.  “Now, we shall see if unit is working”, said Binky.

“Yes”, I replied. “The moment of truth”.  The line went silent for a moment.  “You are asking if I am telling you the truth?”, asked Binky.  “Unit may or may not work; but one thing remains.  Dyson’s always tells the truth”.

I switched the machine on and nothing happened.  “So….?”, inquired Binky.  “Nothing.  Not even a quiver.  Not a sound, shake, or any signs of life”, I said. 

“Sir, this is not the end of the world.  We will send you return shipping label. Just put the D-360 in its original box, and send it back at no charge to you.  Within three months you will have brand new equipment”.

“But I don’t have the original box”, I replied.  I tore it up and used it for kindling for our Christmas Eve fire”.  This time there was a much longer silence on the other end of the line.

“Sir, let me get my supervisor”

You can imagine how the conversation went from there.  A long wait for the supervisor, an equally pleasant and chirpy young woman on the other end, but no resolution.  Bunny was stumped, stymied, and at a loss. A new box would have to be sent.

“Why don’t you just send me the new unit?”, I asked. “I will take send you back the old machine in the new box.”  This was way beyond anything she had ever dealt with before, and asked to put me on hold while she talked to her manager, who was as flummoxed as Bunny.  “Fuck it”, I said; and that was the end of the Dyson’s.

Few of us know or care what goes on inside these machines; and even after having seen all the guts of the Dyson’s splayed out on the floor, I only knew that Tab A went into Slot B, not why. I took it on faith that some whirring fans blew in reverse and pulled up dog hair, pebbles, and crackers.  The concept of ‘lift’ had also been explained to me, how air split as it went over the wings of an airplane; how the top flow had to speed up to catch up with the bottom, thus lifting the wings and the entire plane into thin air; but I had to again take it on faith, because the fact that a hundred-ton flying behemoth could make it up the ground was way beyond me.

I know that machines are smarter than ever and can be programmed for precision and personal preference.  I know that there are computer chips inside that somehow enable these sophisticated choices; and I vaguely understand how heating elements heat up and that freezers and air conditioners have something to do with condensers.  I presume that clothes washers have all kinds of clocks, thermostats, and regulators to make them go through their cycles; but any more than this rudimentary knowledge?  Very little.

Computers are from a completely separate universe. Most of us gave up understanding what makes them work a long time ago.  The Internet, an amazingly complex system of links, relays, servers, data banks, algorithms, and the cloud will never be understood.  It has now become completely routinized and internalized.  Despite occasional quivers and quavers or screen freeze-ups and intermittently slow connections, it is simply and always there.  We depend on it, marvel at it, and if we kick back and think for a few minutes, we will be astounded at its potential.  Some day, we reflect, mind and machine will be perfectly linked, and we will live in virtual worlds beyond our imagination.  The computer will drive for us, cook our meals, shop, pay our bills, handle our finances, and take out the dog.  Already the computer, via Amazon and Netflix, knows everything about our preferences in books, music, and film and can interact with us in intelligent, prescient ways.

Some of us are concerned with invasions of privacy, and are worried that as companies gather more and more information about us, our integrity is increasingly compromised; but we love our cookies, and the individualization of the commercial programs is a boon, not a bane.  We are willingly complicit in the mining of our personal data because we can see the benefits.  Amazon knows more about us than our wives and lovers.

Far fewer people are concerned about the impact of machines on our lives and environment.  Once the microwave has been purchased and once it starts heating up our coffee, buns, and pizza, we don’t stop to consider energy use, radiation, or heat exchange.  Once the snazzy Dyson starts sucking up dust and dirt, we forget about indoor air pollution, microbursts of mites and plastic, or our electric bill.  I am aware that I should not leave my computer, TV, DVD, PlayStation, and other devices on all the time; but, hey, how much juice can my laptop consume, especially when compared to my refrigerator/freezer which is brutal on energy and is on 24 hours a day?

If I were socially responsible, I would not only buy the most energy-efficient, least polluting, and least environmentally damaging appliances; but I would use them efficiently.  I would plug in judiciously.  I would put everything on timers.  I would set thermostats down, dim my lights, and eat off my plates more than once.  Living in a dim, funereal trailer would be a small price to pay for saving the planet.

Even if I were so disposed, I would run up against a lot of ethical conundrums.  Plastics are notoriously bad for the world (excluding consumers).  They take a lot of oil, are combined with PCBs, toxic polymers, and last forever in landfills.  If I have a choice between turning off my computer at night or avoiding anything plastic the answer is obvious.  Or is it?  In the struggle between individual vs. social benefit, the individual almost always wins out. The only way to equal the playing field between the opposing camps is to raise the price on energy, plastics, and industrial strength vacuums to include the costs of the despoiling of the environment – an option sometimes discussed and never acted upon. We want our computer on all the time; and we can’t do without plastic phones, carpets, wraps, toys, clothes, and upholstery.  We want it all, and unless and until we change our minds and ask for higher prices, little will change.

Which brings me to an article in the New York Times (3.31.13) by Evgeny Morazov who argues that producers have the moral and ethical responsibility to inform consumers of just what they are buying.

The hidden truth about many attempts to “bury” technology is that they embody an amoral and unsustainable vision. Pick any electrical appliance in your kitchen. The odds are that you have no idea how much electricity it consumes, let alone how it compares to other appliances and households. This ignorance is neither natural nor inevitable; it stems from a conscious decision by the designer of that kitchen appliance to free up your “cognitive resources” so that you can unleash your inner Oscar Wilde on “contemplating” other things. Multiply such ignorance by a few billion, and global warming no longer looks like a mystery.

Where does Morazov expect this social conscience to come from in an economic sector whose only raison d’etre is to sell products and to make a profit?  It is the manufacturers who produce, the consumers who must be vigilant, and the government who regulates the former and educates the latter.  In other words, it is up to consumers to opt for more environmentally responsible products and eat the higher cost in the name of the planet.  Manufacturers will respond to this new demand (and the higher profits it will generate) by making greener products.  Government will assure consumers that the products hawked by manufacturers really are green and will sanction product makers if they break the rules.

Morazov is suggesting, unrealistically, that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and the country’s thousands of local servers tell you that your personal preferences, habits, movements, and delights are being tracked.  Perhaps an annoying window with a 10 second video of Mark Zuckerberg telling you to beware, he’s watching you; or a screechy warning signal when you click ‘Like’? Or maybe nanny-state warnings.  As you put your key into the ignition of your new SUV, a voice intones “This car can cause death or serious injury”; or “Your new GE oven has been manufactured to the highest standards, but it is a gas range and can blow up at any time”

The worst would be more environmental hectoring.  As though we don’t already have enough of those insistent old ladies who keep hammering on about the water or the climate Doomsday-sayers, cloaked like the Grim Reaper and intoning about the coming apocalyptic end of the world as we know it.  Now, Morazov suggests, it is time that product manufacturers get in the act if not directly, than deviously:

Recently, designers in Germany built devices — “transformational products,” they call them — that engage users in “conversations without words.” My favorite is a caterpillar-shaped extension cord. If any of the devices plugged into it are left in standby mode, the “caterpillar” starts twisting as if it were in pain.

You can bet that Dyson’s, GE, or any other manufacturer of electrical products will stay leagues away from this perverse device, to say nothing of PEPCO, Virginia Power, or any other state energy company.  Reduce energy consumption when revenues are based on use?  Are you kidding?

There are only two possibilities here.  Either consumers are all very, very stupid; or very smart.  ‘Progressives’ assume that we are all too dumb, self-absorbed, selfish, and venal to even consider anything but ourselves; so government has to engineer social harmony and right living.  More objective critics understand that while some of us may be smarter than others, we are all able enough to make our own economic decisions.  If we live on the margins then we will always understandably purchase within the narrow confines of our own self-interest.  As we move up the socio-economic scale, we are likely to expand our horizons and think as much of community as of ourselves.  Hectoring or manipulating the poor is an insult; and banging on about goodness to the well-off is, well, rude and untimely.

All the information that Morazov suggests about manufactured products is there on the Internet.  Without much work, a consumer can find out exactly how much energy a vacuum cleaner uses in a light clean or a heavy-duty, big-time job.  Or how much juice it takes to keep a computer on, asleep, slow-mode, or off.  Or gas burned per mile, by speed, type of road, model, make, and year.  Consumers don’t need wriggling caterpillar cords to warn them of overuse.  If there is enough demand then Tyson’s can install the informational software available on most new cars – e.g. energy consumption by the minute – on its vacuums.

Consumers do not have to be ill-informed or at the mercy of manufacturers who are, after all, simply doing their job.  Caveat emptor has always been a good principle.

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