More on the invisible power of computing: how it affects the way we interact with one another

May 16, 2014 at 11:20 AM Leave a comment

I’ve written before about the major influence of Moore’s Law on modern life in general, and health care in particular.  Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months, and therefore the cost of computing power halves in that same interval.  Result: simple information has become cheaper than zero, and ever more sophisticated information is becoming cheaper daily.  I am old enough to remember when four-function calculators came out, replacing the old adding machines that worked mechanically, and spit out tapes that resembled grocery store receipts.  The calculators were originally priced in the hundreds of dollars. 


But even sophisticated information has gotten cheap.  Think of all the functionality on your smartphone.  Although we each generally use a very small percentage of its potential, just think about what it does do for us.  On it is a GPS that used to be a couple of hundred dollars by itself.  I access TripAdvisor in strange cities and come up with great hotels and terrific restaurants, and directions to them as well as online registration and reservations.  And now that I’m three models behind, my model, brand new, costs about $200. 


While all of this is wonderful, there are some unintended consequences.  First, what we used to think was hard is now easy, especially if you have some money.  Ads cater to what we’re thinking, because of the powerful ability of vendors to infer what’s attractive to us by looking at our online data.  Our GPS devices reroute us around traffic jams, and some new car models anticipate accidents by tracking the data being generated by the car two cars ahead of us. 


I wouldn’t want to go back to the time when I had to go to AAA to pick up a TripTik, or customized route map, before a vacation trip.  (Young people: I’m not making this up.)  But the interface between humans and the computer-based environment isn’t static, for either party.  As I said earlier, Moore’s Law gives us more and more computing power more cheaply on an exponential curve, so things like standalone GPS were hot Christmas items five years ago, and have now been overtaken by apps on our phones.  I doubt you can give away your old GPS today with its static maps and slow processors.   Ditto your old 5 MP digital camera.


Perhaps the more germane accelerated evolution, though, is on the human side.  Humans are an amazing species, because of our adaptability.  This allows us to take virtual trips to different planets, summit Everest where there is almost no oxygen, and probe the sea floor three miles down to search for Malaysia Airlines’ MH370.  During this latest drama, the most common complaint I saw online: why is this taking so long?  Think about that: a decade ago this search might have been practically impossible.  Now we are complaining it’s taken too long.  We just assume that of course we can do that, and somebody must be bumbling the job, otherwise we’d have found it by now.


This applies not only to the rational parts of our brains, but also the emotional parts as well.  Scientists call this hedonic adaptation, and it essentially allows us to become happier in miserable circumstances.  Again, this is a really good thing.  But the same mechanism also causes joy to become routine, and reset our happiness to near its baseline after good things happen. 


It might be obvious by now where I’m headed.  As Moore’s Law makes information cheaper and cheaper, allowing us to search and find what we need in milliseconds, we as humans adapt to that hedonically, and we very shortly come to expect that which we found previously miraculous.  We expect answers to questions instantaneously, exhaustively researched and sharpened by crowd-sourced opinions.  We have evolved into a species that checks its smartphones while waiting the two minutes for our lunches to heat up in the microwave. 


This might be okay if we were just dealing with computers.  But we’re not.  Our worlds are populated by lots of other humans, and the lines blur pretty quickly between performance we expect from machines, and performance we expect from humans.  For example, I went into my local hardware store recently for some paint to touch up a wall in my house.  I couldn’t believe how long it took to shake up the paint to mix the colors.  I first stood there for ten or twenty seconds, and then I went to find something else interesting to look at while it finished.  And, I realized I was expecting my hardware guy, Billy, to somehow make the thing go faster!


The upshot of this is we are increasingly holding humans to inhuman standards.  No errors, instantaneous execution, and replace the human if it proves faulty in any way.  We see this in our politics, our corporate life, and our culture overall.  You just need one mistake to prove any politician isn’t worthy of his current or future office, or that a CEO has failed.  We hold Congressional hearings to prove that the problem isn’t that error is inherent in human decision-making, it’s we just had bad people in the wrong places, and if you just elect people from my party, all will be well.  Never mind that those people are also, well, people.  We are increasingly tempted to treat one another as processors that wear out, and need to be replaced quickly, before whatever circuit that blew can disappoint us again.   And because we have instant access to information, we have an opinion about everything, as if we are and have always been experts on deep ocean surveying, or other things we knew nothing about a couple of months ago. Our media have become a festival of second-guessing and I-told-you-so.  Heck, our online chats are almost nothing but that.  We are used to perfect computer-based execution as the rule, with delay, error, and lack of me-centricity the detestable exception. 


I am not a Luddite; I don’t think there’s any way to go back to human-based execution with its inherent error rate as the norm.  But I do think we are losing many things, as we have hedonically adapted to the kind of performance powerful computing enables: forgiveness, empathy, and the presumption of good faith are among these.  Computers neither need nor want any of these things.  But in a world where fear and alienation seem to be the prevailing affliction, I think we humans all need some of these things, some of the time.  I know I do.  Not only do we need to receive them, I’m afraid we’re making our lives worse by forgetting to give them.  Good studies show that gift-giving, whether tangible objects or simply empathy and understanding, are at least as good for the giver as the receiver.   And that, I think, is what we paradoxically risk losing by expecting inhuman performance of humans, like you and me.  By condemning the inherent fallibility of our humanity in others, we risk disowning the same in ourselves.  


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