What does it mean to be human? I’ll leave that to the philosophers and biologists but I am certain of one thing – I like the unpredictability of it.
As technology develops, there’s a marked growth in businesses seeking not just to respond to our needs but anticipate them. At its heart is the ‘internet of things’ which University College London’s Adam Greenfield neatly termed in a recent piece for the Guardian as 'the colonisation of everyday life by information processing’.
The perhaps less cynical view is that the ‘internet of things’ is the smart use of inter-connected devices to ‘optimise life’ and make the day to day easier. From Amazon ‘dash buttons’ that with one simple click order whatever you need direct to your door, to location services known as ‘ibeacons’ that - combined with smart-phone apps, update you on nearby products or services. And of course, let’s not forget our virtual friends – ‘Google’, ‘Siri’ and ‘Alexa’ that listen to what we want and make helpful suggestions along the way.
I accept that for some – perhaps even many - this ‘internet of things’ combines to make life easier, allowing us to prioritise the fun or important, rather than getting bogged down in daily tedium. But it also encourages us to accept more, and question less.
As Greenfield rightly suggests, the point here is not just how the ‘internet of things’ is helping us, but how we in turn - glad and unquestioning – are giving up data about ourselves and our lives, and the value that goes with it. He draws some fascinating and frightening conclusions about the politics that can be applied to this data and the way in which it can be interpreted, suppressed or ignored to fit certain policies or justify the allocation of resources. My concern is perhaps somewhat more base – I simply don’t want to be reduced to a data-set or algorithm. I, like Greenfield, just don’t believe that there is ‘one and only one correct solution to each identified need’ and that ‘this solution can be arrived at algorithmically’.
The unpredictability of our thinking and desires is what makes us human, and yet technology increasingly seeks to anticipate and predict us. The Orwell 1984 state that persecutes individualism and independent thinking as thought crime is – thank goodness – not with us yet, but we would do well to consider the value of convenience against that of privacy and truly knowing one’s own mind.
To err, after all, is human and let’s not forget it. So if I think I want Italian for dinner tonight but get distracted by a burrito joint along the way? Well, so be it. Predict that, Google.
Isabel Stanley-Wickett is an associate director at Camargue.