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Bull Session

The Human in Tech

August 24, 2017          

Episode Summary

For our podcast topic this week, we discuss the digital life, automation, and eliminating the human in our digital interactions. In an essay in MIT Technology Review, David Byrne of Talking Heads fame postulates that “part of making something ‘frictionless’ is getting the human part out of the way.” He goes on, in his essay to reflect upon how automation is eliminating the human in areas as varied as e-commerce, digital music, online education, and even social media. Does this elimination of the human element lead to less tolerance and understanding of our differences? If cooperation is what has made us successful as a species, how do we survive if we’re only self-interested to the exclusion of others? And, is technology headed in this direction?

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Eliminating the Human

Jon:
Welcome to episode 221 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Greetings, listeners.

Jon:
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to chat about The Digital Life, automation, and eliminating the human in our interactions. There was a terrific essay by the former lead singer of one of my favorite bands, the Talking Heads. David Byrne did this essay on MIT Technology Review just last week, talking about how technology was eliminating human interactions sort of in our day-to-day lives, and he had a great quote from that essay. He said, “Part of making something frictionless is getting the human part out of the way,” which I think is a nice way of putting it. His thesis for this essay is that automation is eliminating the human in a number of our sort of digital services, whether we’re talking about the e-commerce or digital music or the not-so-social social media.

He postulates that this is leading to less tolerance and understanding of differences amongst other possible detriments, and of course all kinds of benefits which we discuss on the show all the time, the benefits of automation, which is you can have things rather quickly or you can communicate across distances with lots of people, but the sort of messy, emotional human to human interactions are becoming less and less so in our digital lives. Frankly, I think he as a point there. I’ll give an example from my own life as I took a little inventory of the human to human interactions that were eliminated for me. Strangely enough, my example is one of the simplest, which is I really enjoy amazon.com, and the Amazon robot, AI or whatever knows kind of the types of books I like to read, whereas in a previous lifetime, it feels like a decade ago, I would actively spend a lot of time in a bookstore. It’s funny. When I go on vacation, I look for used bookstores, good used bookstores or independent bookstores, and I will spend hours and hours in there just combing through the stacks, right?

Dirk:
Yeah.

Jon:
There’s a randomness to used bookstores that I rather enjoy, which you’re looking for some serendipity, right? As you look through. I mean, in my case, the sci-fi section, and go through and just sort of see what they have.

Dirk:
Sure.

Jon:
And interact with the people, the shop owner. Sometimes you run into some really interesting people and really interesting books. I found this one book when I was up in Provincetown. I was on vacation many years ago, but it was this sci-fi book called Dhalgren and it was written by Samuel Delany, I believe, but the intro was by William Gibson. You know, Samuel Delany is a lion of science fiction, but William Gibson, for me, as like a cyberpunk aficionado, he is the godfather, right? Anyway, I found this hardback book with a slip case that was signed by both of them. Holy smokes.
Dirk:
Pretty cool.

Jon:
Yeah, and so that’s just part of the, I was in this used bookstore chatting up the store owner, whatever, and sort of had this serendipitous moment. Those moments as much as you can sort of digitize that experience, those moments aren’t quite the same when you’re shopping on Amazon. It’s really more sort of in the digital experience, find what you want, execute, and get out, and so the used bookstore or the indie bookstore or whatever bookstore you prefer, that experience has gone by the wayside. I know I still need that or want that or enjoy that because when I have free time at my disposal, then I go and find it, so that’s my one example. I have plenty of other examples we can get into later, but I want to turn this over to you, Dirk, and get your impressions on the essay.

Dirk:
Yes, so too much, too much. There’s like four things that I want to talk about. The first one that I’ll talk about quickly, because I think it’s of less interest to our listeners, but I was really sad reading it, this article, but it was in the MIT Technology Review. It was only in there because it was David Byrne. If it was Jon Follett who wrote that exact same thing, if it was Dirk Knemeyer, it never would have gotten in. It read like an intelligent blog essay from someone who’s naïve and ignorant to the issues being talked about, and so it pained me that a celebrity was able to just get that into a publication that I expect to be at a real high professional level of publishing, so I want to start there.

Let me now jump to sort of the end and your story of going through the used bookstores and that. This will actually, frankly, relate to a lot of how I feel about what David Byrne wrote, is that what we need to do is figure out what are the things that should be experiences and what are the things that should not be experiences, right? You in your life will have moments when you want to just order a book and have it show up. You will have other moments in your life where you want to browse slowly through a used interesting bookstore you never been in just see what you discover, right? We need space for both of those things. Just because browsing through the interesting used bookstore has a lot of positives to it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to just push the button and have the robot bring us the random book that we just want when we want it.

One of the real problems I have with the things that David Byrne wrote, with what a lot of people who go down this path write about is that there’s no sense of a greater system or greater order where we’re saying, “Look, you know …” Here’s a good example. There was someone who was I read. That’s been a while now, but there was someone who was talking about how we used to have to wait in lines a lot and they said that was a good thing because it had social interaction with other people, people we didn’t know and wouldn’t necessarily normally talk to, and it also gave us time to daydream, to think, just to be outside of doing other things and be forced into a space where we reflect and we just dream.

That’s such flawed thinking, right? Waiting in a line sucks and is horrible and is awful, right? If in that context there are valuable aspects such as socializing with people you haven’t met before, such as daydreaming, such as some kind of unstructured percolating about the world as you sit in this awful line, wanting to claw your eyes out, that doesn’t make waiting in line something that is good and should be preserved. We need to be cognizant of what are the experiences that are enriching, that are enjoyable, that are a part of a healthy, fulsome human condition that should manifest in the context of the totality of our lives? Those should, in almost every case, not live within the traditional structure in which they live. They shouldn’t live within waiting in lines. They shouldn’t live within these unintentional, accidental broken contexts. Let’s design for them. If daydreaming is good for me, let’s optimize the way that I daydream.

You know, I had an experience just this week which really sort of brought this home for me. At home, in my house, I have … I mean, I got it on Kickstarter. It was called the Sense. They’re out of business now, but it’s a product where you put this little thing on your pillow and there’s something that sits in your room and there’s a little app on your iPhone. It tells you how well you slept, right? A long time ago, it stopped working right for telling me how I slept, which is worthless where that’s concerned. However, one of the features of this product is it has an alarm clock and that alarm clock, they scientifically worked out to be the best possible way to wake you up, and so when the time comes in the morning when I wake up, this little wonderful music starts very light and then goes up a little and up a little and up a little. It’s just a wonderful start to the day. Last week I happened to be sharing a hotel room with someone who they set an alarm.

There was like a red alert clack sound going off and they set it for earlier than I normally get up, so at this early unholy hour it’s, “Rim, rim, rim, rim.” That’s a great example of the traditional thoughtless bullshit approach to the thoughtful scientific digital age approach, and yes, we still need to wake up, but why not wake up in a way that has been determined to be the best for our holistic self as opposed to, “Rim, rim, rim, rim, rim”?

Jon:
I love your imitation of the clack sound there. I’m well aware of that hideous alarm sound and actually that’s one of my least favorite noises in all the world, so point taken. I think that what’s interesting about sort of the automation versus human interaction question is also there are, I think, a number of contexts where there were forcing functions that brought us together with other human beings that may not be of the same persuasion that we are, whether it’s politically or intellectually or what have you, so the interaction with a bookstore keeper or the guy at the record store or somebody in line, it’s a suboptimal … you know, in theory the line waiting is suboptimal and maybe-

Dirk:
In practice, Jon. Forget the theory.

Jon:
Yeah. Not that I’m into waiting in line and all, but I’ve seen waiting in line turned into celebrations for things, and certainly if you’re an Apple fanboy waiting for the next iPhone, waiting in line is part of the experience.

Dirk:
Maybe five or six years ago. I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore.

Jon:
But there are a forcing functions here where you encounter people different than you in physical space and may or may not have a conversation with them. I think the opportunities for that sort of interaction are … if we’re optimizing whether it’s service suggest or whatever the elements are that get us to these optimizations that are based on user preference, I think the things that make us uncomfortable sometimes are sometimes good for us, so being able to account for human interactions that may be good for us as a society, but not necessarily good for just what I want in totality, like designing some of those things in also needs to be taken into account. I think with digital media, it is extremely easy for us to be part of our own echo chamber.

I know I’m guilty of following people or listening to people who sort of match the same wavelength that I have and ignoring people who are on a different wavelength, and so being able to integrate those sometimes vastly different ways of looking at the world and exposing people to those things, I think is a good part of human to human interaction, which sometimes can get lost in the digital and can be sort of tough to design for, because it’s a good that is not necessarily at the user level. Like, I don’t know if I’d necessarily say, “Yeah, put me with somebody who I’m going to disagree with strongly, and when I do whatever this activity is, I want to butt heads with somebody.” I don’t know if I would choose that or not.

Dirk:
Right. I mean, ringing into much bigger questions about the world, should it be some paternalistic system that is putting us through a gauntlet of what is best for us, which is sort of the opposite of now, as we just sort of careen through a totally arbitrary not designed system and just catch it as catch can? One thing you talked about was like driverless cars and here’s this thing now. A human was involved. Now they’re not involved. I mean, those are good things. Driving a car it’s something that’s dangerous. You could potentially die. It’s something that for most people is stressful. Now there’s exceptions to all these things. There’s people like, “I love driving. I would just drive.” Fine, great, but for the most part, there’s all these things that aren’t that super. Moving them out of the way should be done, like here, let me flip it. What’s something that happens almost never today as we go through our lives?

It’s very rare that we share our greatest delights with other people. It’s very rare that we share our greatest fears with other people. It’s very rare that we open ourselves up to a deep level of intimacy with other people, unless penises and vaginas are involved. That’s a tragedy. We are missing out on the beautiful and wonderful and essential parts of humanity as we have conversations like, “Oh, what do you do for a living? Oh, good, good. What did you do this weekend? Oh, good, good.” And we forget about it 10 minutes later. The unexplored territory of the self is something that is not part of the process and the experience of being alive and being a human in our society. Let’s move past the crap that nobody cares about and let’s get into the stuff that really matters, right? Look, the sort of inane conversations that I referred to before of, “What do you do? How are you feeling? What’s the weather?” that’s all bullshit.

You know, a scientist has this research done fairly recently and I’m not going to be able to cite it, but if you google using the word orgasm, you’ll be able to figure out pretty quickly. The brain activity when people are talking about themself is similar to the brain activities when they’re having an orgasm, and when they’re in a conversation and when they go from talking about themself to listening to the other person, that brain activity regresses into something that is not very good, so you go from talking about me, feeling joy, awesome. I’m like, on top of the moon because I’m blabbering about myself, but when you start to do the same, I’m not getting much out of that. I’m kind of retreating, and so we’re practically like AI receptacles. I’m standing here so you can have your orgasm as you dive all your information about yourself to me, and now you’re going to stand there as a receptacle so I can have little orgasm as I dive my information out at you.

I mean, it’s a fiction that we’re having these conversations or sort of engaging both of us and bringing us in. It’s this sort of mono process of, “I’m going to have my orgasm. Now you have your orgasm.” So the whole thing is bullshit. I mean, we have to blow it up and look at what really matters. I mean, what are conversations that can make us soulfully laugh? What are conversations that can make us cry? What are conversations that can take us to the extremes of human reality that we spend almost no time in? However, if we look back at our lives, if we investigate the things that are most meaningful to us that we remember the best, they’re those kind of moments. They’re not the moments about the weather. They’re not the moments of, “What did you do this weekend?” It’s something different entirely. The way we get there is by moving out of the way, wasting half a day going to the store, waiting in line, doing a lot of bullshit, proceduralize that, and let’s get to the essence and the wonder of being human.

Jon:
Okay. I take your point on sort of the higher goods for human interaction that are possible. I will say that I think foundationally there’s a lot to be said for what amounts to the trivialities of interactions with people who you only see in brief periods. For example, I have a number of neighbors who are all from different places, from different countries. I’ll go through, a lot of my day, I’ll just say hello to folks or whatever, but I think there’s some foundational respect that comes along with interacting people in a light-touch way that I get from interacting with my neighbors even if the ostensible discussion itself is about something paltry like the weekend was hot or something like that. There is some basic exchange of respect that goes on through that interaction when I see my neighbor, and understanding that we’re sort of sharing all this same space together.

As much as I get it … like sometimes I don’t want to say hello to people because whatever. I’m in a rush or not in the mood or what have you, but I do think there are some fundamental benefits to these paltry interactions, and I can tell that I think we’ve sort of touched on what could be a whole series of podcasts here in terms of determining these human interactions and what good comes of them, but I do think that moving things online can get isolating for me and I do enjoy some of those, what I call disposable but still valuable interactions with folks.

Dirk:
Yeah. I mean, I think of it as more mixed reality, so take what you’re calling disposable interactions. What if your device, what if your environment is letting you know that your neighbor comes from Venezuela and is letting you know that your neighbor’s … some of this gets too Big Brother-y, but as a thought experiment let’s just run with it. Your neighbor’s lawn mower broke down as they were trying to use it. If you had a notification like, “Hey, Bob’s lawn mower just broke down. Would you like to go and help him?” That would be pretty freaking awesome. If you reel your lawn mower. “Hey, Bob I just got this. Oh, I’m sorry, man. Like, please use mine. I’d love it.” That’s awesome. Going over. “How’s the weather?” I mean that’s … right?

I’m not saying let’s put walls between us. I’m saying we waste time, we waste our lives having these meaningless interactions, which with a little bit of automation, a little bit of insight, we could instead have incredibly meaningful and beneficial interactions. It’s just moving the location of where these things happen. Like, weather information, you don’t necessarily need to have a conversation about, but there’s other things that you do need to have a conversation about that would really matter to both of you. Today those conversations never happen. I see a future where those conversations can happen. I think that’s fucking exciting.

Jon:
All right. I’m going to say that’s a pretty cool interaction. I’d love it if somebody could show up when my latest appliance has broken down, so I like that thought, but listeners, remember that while you’re listening to this show, you can follow along with the things that we are mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com — that’s just one L in The Digital Life — and go to this page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play, and if you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N, F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter at @dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 221 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer. I’m Jonathan Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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