I sometimes regret that I bought a new laptop a year ago, though I was forced into it. The keyboard on my ancient Lenovo was falling apart; after the “M” key and the little red button beneath it abandoned ship, I could no longer ail coherent essages
Only after acquiring my new machine did I realize how lovely it was to have all those no-longer-supported programs, because now I’m stuck with updated versions that want to do everything for me. Everything.
I have recently begun using Gmail’s redesign, which includes a “Smart Reply” feature that automatically suggests possible responses to e-mails, whether personal or work- related. “Great job!” “Sounds like fun!” “No worries!” Select a canned response, send it and you’re done.
I’m not sure whether this is an improvement over emoticons, which communicate that you are not worth the effort it costs me to generate words. Smart Reply says you are worthy of words, but not many, and only as long as I don’t have to form them.
The feature is based on a mostly functional but predictably imperfect algorithm; an early version reportedly responded using both “Sent from my iPhone” and “I love you” with distressing frequency. A Google spokesperson says Smart Reply works best “on emails that it can suggest optimal responses to,” meaning it’s not yet suited to complicated communiques with formerly intimate others. (“Did you leave that poo on my porch?” “I love you but also hate you!” “No worries! I’m bringing bail!”)
I had not yet assimilated Smart Reply before I encountered a commercial for Amazon’s Alexa. It features a family struggling with the quintessential First World problem of finding the right remote control to increase the volume on their big-screen TV. Installing Alexa relieves Dad from the onerous task of actually using his hands, which are wrapped around a large bowl of buttery popcorn. I don’t know about you, but I think this is exactly the kind of thing couch-bound, overweight Americans have been needing.
All of this comes on the heels of re-watching the 1975 movie, The Stepford Wives, a still creepy and sadly salient story of men who replace their problematically human wives with compliant, anatomically appealing automatons who will clean their homes, cook their meals, tend their children and praise their sexual prowess. When the protagonist – about to be murdered by her robot replacement – asks the ringleader of the scheme why, he says simply: Because we can.
I have the same creepy feeling about the technology that entangles our increasingly Stepford lives because it can, because we have asked it to. Labor-saving, uncomplaining, compliant to our every wish — everything humans aren’t. It is possible, now, to conceive of entire “conversations” in which no thinking, feeling person is present, nor seemingly missed. (You don’t need to imagine this; just consider the Trump White House.)
As machines grow smarter – as we rely on them to think for us, to speak for us, to operate our homes and drive our cars – how can we help but grow individually dumber and lazier, our brains withering from disuse?
And what of our hearts, our emotional bonds? If we routinely delegate simple human communication to impersonal technology, how can we hope to navigate with any skill the complexities of our relationships when they become truly difficult? If we do not actually attend to each other in the day to day — which is, after all, the ongoing practice of being human — how will we help each other in the emotional trenches?
Alexa, change Mom’s diaper? Smart Reply, talk my friend off the ledge? Siri, speak to me not in the voice of an Australian woman, but in the voice of the loved one I miss, which softens when it hears mine?
I’ve had this uneasy response to technology for a long time. The first bulk e-mail from a friend – my name in a long list of unfamiliar others – felt somehow like a wound. Only later could I articulate what I felt: The method of communication had flattened the emotional topography between sender and recipients, made our individual relationships with her irrelevant. The implicit “I care about you” that motivates singular, personal communication had been subtly undermined by the dissonance of a bulk form that, in its preference for efficiency, makes no one feel special.
Efficiency, ease, entertainment: the gods technology serves at the expense of the unique human qualities and experiences it replaces.
I meant this post to be funny, but I can’t seem to write myself there. I am too concerned about technology’s power to erode our humanity and weaken our personal bonds, at a time when we need our functioning minds, our engaged hearts — and each other — more than ever. Certainly more than we need ease, efficiency and entertainment.
Maybe we can have both; maybe. Yet so much seduction already has occurred; who among us would have imagined even 10 years ago the pervasive presence of technology in our homes, cars, pockets? Who would have imagined that so much of the attention we once gave other would be hijacked by digital devices? As a society, we are completely bought in, on board, hooked by the old gizmo and eager for the new — often more eager than we are for our own undistracted company, or that of another.
Me, I want to tell Alexa to go away. Smart Reply to be quiet. We made you, because we can, I want to say. But we don’t need you. We need ourselves, and each other.