When humans fuse with apps, what will happen to the soul?
Beware the coming fusion of humans — you, me, all of us — with our smartphones and their array of apps for everything from finding directions to buying groceries to making ethical decisions. And make no mistake: this fusion is indeed coming. Or rather, it’s already here in nascent form. Just look around yourself and notice the people sitting and standing in any public place — stores, restaurants, movie theaters, sidewalks, streets, roads — and consulting their handheld digi-daemons about where to go and how to get there, what to do and when and how to do it, whom to call and what to say. In literally every aspect of life, we increasingly get by with more than just a little help from our handheld friends.
“Generation Smartphone,” the September 2012 cover story of technology magazine IEEE Spectrum, imagines a near future (2020, to be exact) where we each have a “SmartPhone 20.0” that takes care of everything for us. The author, Dan Siewiorek, provides a laundry list of things that future smartphones will make possible. Are you the parent of a newborn child and worried about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? Well, just download the right suite of apps and worry no more. Afraid that little Tommy will get kidnapped on his way home from school? Well, the smartphone will use facial recognition apps to I.D. that creepy old man trying to coax him into a van and will whisper into Tommy’s ear that he should run to a safe house, 0.3 miles south. Lest you think that these gadgets will only be useful to kids, plenty of apps will fix adults’ lives as well, enabling us to drive better, remember business partners’ names, never mess up a recipe, and automatically quantify all our vital signs.
— Jathan Sadowski, “Reign of the Techno-Nanny,”The New Inquiry, October 5, 2012
Who, what, when, where, how — they’re all covered. Our devices and apps mercifully remove from us the burden of having to hash these things out using nothing but our individual and collective human brainpower, willpower, moral reasoning, and intuition. Literally the only one of the traditional reporter’s questions that appears to be overlooked in our frenzy for apps is why. As in, why should we be doing any or all of these things, let alone doing them more productively, accurately, and efficiently thanks to the benevolent coaching of our high-tech otherbrains?
In theory, the reason we use apps is so that we can do what we already want but just do it better. This all changes when smartphones prompt us to act in unanticipated ways. Albert Borgmann, a pre-eminent philosopher of technology, worries in Real American Ethics that “we will slide from housekeeping to being kept by our house” … By externalizing our ethical decisionmaking to apps and gadgets, we not only risk the practical problem of total dependence — if you lose your phone, you’ll become disoriented and helpless — but the deeper issue of sacrificing moral agency. Philosophers going back to Aristotle have argued that a key aspect of human flourishing is putting in the work to develop a virtuous character.
But don’t worry. Given the momentum behind the smartphone industry, and given the universal cultural stranglehold of the galactic corporate overlords whom this industry both serves and represents, there will probably end up being some clever (but ultimately empty) apps that offer facsimiles of philosophical thinking and spiritual reflecting to divine the reasons for one’s actions and the meaning of one’s life. Or else — and this is more likely — the relevance of the why question itself, which has, let us remember, been the perennial driving force behind all of humanity’s deepest fears and highest aspirations, will simply get lost in the digital cacophony.
[T]he techno-nanny won’t manifest in a brash, sudden way. It will, instead, arise through the slow creep of inertia where we incorporate Siri and other apps into our normal daily routine. The symbiotic relationship between us and our apps will be seamless; we won’t even be aware of our diminishing ethical capabilities. In the worst case, smartphones will let us live without self-awareness and self-control.
So what, really, is the meaning and purpose of life, of living, of this whole frantically flailing inferno of ever more efficient, dumb, childish, and empty activity? There is, in fact, no app for that. Nor could there ever be.
SCENES FROM A CLASSIC FUTURE DYSTOPIAN NIGHTMARE BY RAY BRADBURY:
“Maybe I don’t have enough to do. Maybe I have time to think too much. Why don’t we shut the whole house off for a few days and take a vacation?”
“You mean you want to fry my eggs for me?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“And darn my socks?”
“Yes.” A frantic, watery-eyed nodding.
“And sweep the house?”
“Yes, yes — oh, yes!”
“But I thought that’s why we bought this house, so we wouldn’t have to do anything?”
“That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot.”
At dinner they ate alone, for Wendy and Peter were at a special plastic carnival across town and had televised home to say they’d be late, to go ahead eating. So George Hadley, bemused, sat watching the dining-room table produce warm dishes of food from its mechanical interior.
“We forgot the ketchup,” he said.
“Sorry,” said a small voice within the table, and ketchup appeared.
“We’re thinking of turning the whole house off for about a month [George said to his ten-year-old son, Peter]. Live sort of a carefree one-for-all existence.”
“That sounds dreadful! Would I have to tie my own shoes instead of letting the shoe tier do it? And brush my own teeth and comb my hair and give myself a bath?”
“It would be fun for a change, don’t you think?”
“No, it would be horrid. I didn’t like it when you took out the picture painter last month.”
“That’s because I wanted you to learn to paint all by yourself, son.”
“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell; what else is there to do?”
— From Ray Bradbury, “The Veldt” (1950)
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Posted on October 17, 2012, in Religion & Philosophy, Science & Technology and tagged apps, Dystopia, philosophy, Ray Bradbury, Science Fiction, smartphones, technopoly. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.