Superfluous humans in a world of smart machines


Remember Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian short story “The Veldt” (excerpted here) with its nightmare vision of a soul-sapping high-technological future where monstrously narcissistic — and, as it turns out, sociopathic and homicidal — children resent even having to tie their own shoes and brush their own teeth, since they’re accustomed to having these things done for them by machines?

Remember Kubrick’s and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL, the super-intelligent AI system that runs the spaceship Discovery, decides to kill the human crew that he has been created to serve, because he has realized/decided that humans are too defective and error-prone to be allowed to jeopardize the mission?

Remember that passage (which I’ve quoted here before) from John David Ebert’s The New Media Invasion in which Ebert identifies the dehumanizing technological trend that’s currently unfolding all around us? Humans, says Ebert, are becoming increasingly superfluous in a culture of technology worship:

Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words . . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities . . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.

Bear all of that in mind, and then read this, which is just the latest in a volley of media reports about the encroaching advent, both rhetorical and factual, of all these things in the real world:

A house that tracks your every movement through your car and automatically heats up before you get home. A toaster that talks to your refrigerator and announces when breakfast is ready through your TV. A toothbrush that tattles on kids by sending a text message to their parents. Exciting or frightening, these connected devices of the futuristic “smart” home may be familiar to fans of science fiction. Now the tech industry is making them a reality.

Mundane physical objects all around us are connecting to networks, communicating with mobile devices and each other to create what’s being called an “Internet of Things,” or IoT. Smart homes are just one segment — cars, clothing, factories and anything else you can imagine will eventually be “smart” as well.

. . . We won’t really know how the technology will change our lives until we get it into the hands of creative developers. “The guys who had been running mobile for 20 years had no idea that some developer was going to take the touchscreen and microphone and some graphical resources and turn a phone into a flute,” [Liat] Ben-Zur [of chipmaker Qualcomm] said.

The same may be true when developers start experimenting with apps for connected home appliances. “Exposing that, how your toothbrush and your water heater and your thermostat . . . are going to interact with you, with your school, that’s what’s next,” said Ben-Zur.

MORE: “The Internet of Things: Helping Smart Devices Talk to Each Other

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 9, 2014, in Arts & Entertainment, Science & Technology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This item may be worth considering in this context: increasingly, as these peripheral devices become networked, they become the backdoor access for hackers and spies

  2. I think this trend is only “dehumanizing” to the extent that we still rely on a capitalist model where everyone has an obligation to work full-time, and so machines taking jobs that used to be done by humans is causing a lot of people to no longer be able to “make a living”. If we see the increase in machine labor as a stepping stone to a post-scarcity economy where machines do all of the necessary but monotonous and boring jobs (like Ebert’s ‘clerk to ring up your groceries for you’), and push for something like a basic income which can continually increase as machines take more and more of these jobs, I think that would be the opposite of dehumanizing, it would free more people from wage slavery and allow them to pursue things they find rewarding even if they aren’t financially lucrative, like art and learning.

    • I’ve long circles back to (and away from) thoughts along somewhat similar lines, Jesse, and have counted among some of my most important intellectual and philosophical influences a number of writers and thinkers who advanced the same position that you describe. But at the same time, I’m deeply skeptical of the philosophical and economic underpinnings of such a project, for reasons that — in a nice bit of timing — were articulated just a few days ago by Nicholas Carr as his blog, in a post titled “The myth of the endless ladder“:

      There’s something deeply comforting about the notion that labor-saving technology inevitably pushes workers to higher pursuits. . . . But like many of the comforting things we tell ourselves, it’s no more than a half-truth. . . . The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is revealing. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. It “frees us” for higher-value tasks and “propels us” into more fulfilling work and “helps us” to expand ourselves. We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. . . . The biggest beneficiaries of the endless-ladder myth are those who have gained enormous wealth through the profit-concentrating effects of commercial computers. The myth helps them feel good about themselves. They, after all, are the ones who are setting in motion the virtuous cycle that, in the fullness of time, will bring us all to the nirvana of “higher-and-higher-value work.” It suits their business interests, too, by conflating those interests with society’s interests. Software and algorithms and robots will solve our problems, if we allow them to.

      • Well, I’m not saying technology or the people who develop it have some inherent motive to “free” us to higher pursuits, and as long as capitalism in its present form continues I think there’s a strong tendency to just create new forms of work to replace those that can be done by machines (and in many cases, even if certain work can be done by machines, businesses will take the cheaper route of just finding parts of the world where people will do the same work for very low wages). But one of the main ideas of a “post-scarcity economy” is that when automatization reaches the point where basically any manufactured good can be made completely by machines, including the very machines involved in the manufacture themselves (like a 3D printer that could print out more 3D printers, or a system of factory robots that could build more factory robots), then a lot of things about the way the economy works would be dramatically changed. At that point, the cost of making basically any manufactured good would be barely higher than the cost of the raw materials and energy needed to supply the machines, so even a relatively small guaranteed minimum income should be enough to afford all the sorts of physical goods we associate with a “comfortable” middle-class lifestyle, and the system wouldn’t fall apart if large numbers of people stopped working or switched to self-employed jobs that didn’t make much profit. This is not to say we would suddenly be living in some sort of utopia, obviously there’s far more to happiness and living a meaningful life than material comfort, but at least people wouldn’t be forced to work at jobs that hold no meaning for them other than a paycheck out of fear of living in poverty if they quit. To quote a post I read a little while ago at — “Socialism won’t eliminate the sorrows of the human condition. Loss, death, betrayal, disappointment, hurt: none of these would disappear or even be mitigated in a socialist society. As the Pirkei Avot puts it, against your will you enter this world, against your will you leave it (or something like that). That’s not going to change under socialism. But what socialism can do is to arrange things so that you can actually deal with and confront these unhappinesses of the human condition.”

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